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ETSU and Virginia Tech establish new Opioid Research Consortium of Central Appalachia

Contributed • Apr 17, 2019 at 5:21 PM

East Tennessee State University and Ballad Health are joining forces with institutions across the region to combine resources, communication, workforce and expertise to battle the opioid crisis in central Appalachia.

Last fall, ETSU partnered with Virginia Tech to apply for a one-year Eugene Washington Engagement Award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI). The grant, totaling $265,000, was awarded this year and will establish the Opioids Research Consortium of Central Appalachia (ORCA).

“Central Appalachia is at the epicenter of the opioid crisis,” said Dr. Robert Pack, executive director of ETSU’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse and Treatment and associate dean and professor in ETSU’s College of Public Health. “The purpose of the grant is to facilitate planning for a research blueprint on opioids for the central Appalachian region.”

Pack and Dr. Kimberly Horn, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion and in the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, are the directors and co-principal investigators for ORCA.

The ORCA founding institutional partners include ETSU, Marshall University, University of Kentucky, Virginia Tech, West Virginia University, Ballad Health and Carilion Clinic. The Roanoke Valley Collective Response organization, comprised of almost 150 members across sectors, serves as ORCA’s initial community advisory group.

“Expanding behavioral health and addiction recovery services to meet the need in our community is an important priority for Ballad Health,” said Trish Baise, vice president of behavioral health services for Ballad Health and president of Overmountain Recovery. “We’re looking forward to designing and implementing more best practices through our partnership in ORCA, and working together to address the region’s opioid epidemic.”

Pack and Horn hope that research partnerships developed through ORCA will help central Appalachian communities become more proactive in the battle against opioid addiction and the connected public health concerns such as neonatal abstinence syndrome, Hepatitis C and HIV outbreaks, mental health issues, malnourishment and suicide.

“Everyone responds to the crisis according to their expertise, from first responders to treatment specialists to researchers, and there is so much we can learn from each other if we have better ways to share,” Horn said. “Research is key to unlocking new and better solutions.”

ORCA is a welcome step toward facilitating research and collaboration throughout Appalachia, Pack added.

“Unfortunately, the immediacy of the crisis creates a reactionary climate for institutions and organizations in the throes of the crisis, allowing little time, resources or human capital to establish essential research partnerships and share lessons learned,” Pack said. “To make an impact, we need to erase boundaries and leverage the resources of a diverse group of stakeholders. That is what we hope to do through ORCA.”

ORCA is one of ETSU’s many efforts to work with a variety of stakeholders to combat the opioid crisis. In 2012, a group of ETSU faculty and community members formed the Prescription Drug Abuse/Misuse Working Group (“the Working Group”), an interdisciplinary team comprised of experts from ETSU and individuals from throughout local communities who play a role in fighting the opioid problem. The Working Group has been instrumental in the fight against opioid morbidity and mortality in Northeast Tennessee, according to Pack.

The combined efforts of the Working Group have led to many positive outcomes in the state and region including increased national attention on the opioid crisis, better access to treatment for substance use disorders and organized community efforts to tackle this issue.

“ETSU has worked closely with our surrounding community through the Working Group, and now ORCA allows us to expand and build a strong research infrastructure with partners throughout central Appalachia,” Pack said.

To learn more about ETSU’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment, visit www.etsu.edu/cph/pdam.

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