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UC, UC Health hosts White House team to share partnerships, strategies in fighting opioid crisis

Feb. 27, 2024

Cincinnati, OH - On Thursday, February 23, a team from the White House Office of National Drug Control Police visited the University of Cincinnati to speak with UC physicians and UC Health physicians about their collaborative work to combat the Opioid Crisis.

As the opioid crisis continues through Ohio and the United States, the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and UC Health hosted a team from the White House on Thursday to share how the college and health system have implemented evidence-based practices and community partnerships that have made a significant impact on reducing opioid deaths and overdoses in southwest Ohio.

The visit from Washington D.C. was part of a three-day trip to Columbus and Cincinnati by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). ONDCP Director Dr. Rahul Gupta and his team also met with Hamilton County leaders in medicine, law enforcement and government during their visit. 

“I think the most important point is to be in the community to learn what's happening so that can make it to our policies and it will eventually impact people,” Gupta said. 

Researchers and clinicians from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and UC Health sat with Gupta and his team for a roundtable discussion that illustrated how academic medical centers like ours are uniquely equipped to effect positive change in the community. 

“Our goal overall right now is to make a way of tackling the opioid/drug overdose epidemic,” Gupta began as the cohort prepared to share examples and show updated data on how they seeing a real-time reduction in local overdoses, deaths and repeat patient care visits. 

The conversation focused on the collaborative strategy of combining publicly-funded research, medical education, and evidence-based patient care to better serve patients with opioid use disorder in the hospital setting and beyond. 

Featured UC Health Experts

The UC and UC Health participants included:

    Brett Kissela, MD, Executive Vice Dean of UC College of Medicine, Senior Associate Dean of Clinical Research, Chief of Research Services for UC Health, and Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine, on behalf of Senior Vice President and Dean Andrew Filak, MD.

    Melissa Delbello, MD, Professor and Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience and Co-Medical Director of the Mood Disorders Center at University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

    John Winhusen, PhD, Professor and Vice Chair of Addiction Sciences in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience and Director of the UC Center for Addiction Research

    Dan Bebo, MD, Associate Professor in Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience and a UC Health physician.

    Richard Ryan, MD, Professor and Vice Chair of Operations in Emergency Medicine and a UC Health physician.

    Andrew Norman, PhD. Professor in Pharmacology and Chairperson, Medication Development Research Study Section of the National Institute on Drug Abuse Initial Review Group.

    Caroline Freiermuth, MD, Associate Professor in Emergency Medicine and Shawn Ryan Endowed Chair to Benefit the Acute Treatment of Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders and a UC Health physician.

For the research arm, Winhusen shared UC’s role in the federally-funded HEALing Communities Study. The more than $350 million, four-year study aims to reduce opioid-related deaths by 40 percent in Ohio, Kentucky, and Massachusetts. Winhusen, who is the co-principal investigator of the study for the state of Ohio, called the study “probably the most ambitious addiction trial ever undertaken”. UC received more than $15 million as part of the study and is awaiting results to be published. 

Continuing with research, Norman told Gupta how he and his translational research team at the Norman Laboratory have developed a vaccine against cocaine that has proven to be effective in the laboratory setting. They are currently seeking approval for a clinical trial. Norman explained the development of monoclonal antibodies against cocaine came about by using “immunized transgenic mice that produced human antibodies.”

Gupta asked for more clarification on how the vaccine would work. “It will prevent cocaine from getting into the brain and reinitiating cocaine-induced relapse. We believe that’s the way it would work on people,” Norman said.

On the clinical side, Ryan shared some of the successes the emergency medicine teams have achieved in the hospital setting. Specifically, he mentioned UC’s ongoing strategy of care to provide medication and cognitive therapy to overdose patients who have been arrested.

Ryan also took time to share with Gupta the drastic decrease in recidivism among overdose patients within the emergency department setting. Click the video to see his explanation of the data and reasons behind the dramatic and encouraging change.

“What we were looking at was some fantastic emergency department data. That was our emergency department from 2019 till current. And what we saw there was from peak, you know, where we saw 200 patients a quarter that had a chief complaint or discharge diagnosis of opioids. We saw that decrease 60%, peak was 71% decrease in those types of patients presenting to our emergency department. And that's because of what we did at UC. We treat those patients when they came in with buprenorphine, they get into recovery and then they don't come back to UC. We're preventing recidivism or preventing health care dollars, saving health care dollars, a lot of health care dollars by decreasing that number of a population that generally has tough time paying for services, But they still receive the services no different than anybody else.

But the whole system loses money. And so if we can prevent that, it's a financial win. More importantly, it's a patient win because we know that they are either in recovery or practicing safe harm reduction practices.”

Continuing the clinical side of care, Freiermuth told Gupta about the positive effects of adding a different kind of advocate to the emergency department care team.

“We found that one of our most impactful members is our peer recovery specialists,” Freiermuth said. “We brought them in in the emergency department. And I think that's when we really started to see a culture change in our staff because our staff were able to meet people who had the lived experience and now worked alongside them to help other people. It was like night and day. So we have actually partnered with the Addiction Services Council in town and they are doing peer recovery specialist internships, and our emergency department is one of their training sites where people can come and figure out what is the difference between being a peer recovery specialist in a very controlled outpatient setting, as opposed to a very chaotic emergency department.”

UC’s experts also spoke about how we are working to educate the next generation of researchers and providers in the field of addiction science. Ryan spoke of different fellowships offered through the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine focusing on addiction services, harm reduction and telehealth. Ryan also shared the development of a new addiction medicine fellowship that is set to start in 2025.

Ryan spoke after the roundtable discussion to share his thoughts about meeting with Gupta.

“I think today went very well,” Ryan said. “UC Health and UC have partnered to develop faculty that are passionate enough to lead the effort. I think a message that was very important today, I hope it came through, and is that this is all grant-funded. If this goes away, the programs go away because there's no internal funding.”

The team reinforced to Gupta the importance of grant funding in supporting the layered work they do alongside community partners to fight the opioid crisis with research, evidence-based clinical care, and medical education.

Afterward, Gupta shared his reactions to the meeting.

“Well, the most important thing that I'm coming away with is the ability for the entire community, whether it's government, Hamilton County Commission, whether it's the city of Cincinnati, whether it's the individuals who are part of the committees and others have really become leaders from business to medicine to public health to law enforcement and individuals in recovery. They've all really gelled together and come together to solve this problem. There is no daylight between that and that, to me, is really the secret sauce that comes when you are focused on solving a problem. That, to me is important. It's also important that right here is a very good utilization of the resources that are being provided.” So when we think about braiding funding streams, when we think about maximizing the resources to save lives, that's exactly what's impressed me.”

When asked what the country needs to know about Ohio and its efforts to combat the opioid crisis, Gupta responded.

“What you're doing here is what we need for the rest of the nation to happen. So I'll be taking with me a lot of this knowledge and I'll be sharing that with communities across the country as well as in Washington and at the White House.”