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College of Public Health

ETSU receives $2.2 million NIDA grant

Contact: Brad Lifford

June 13, 2013

NOTE TO MEDIA: To schedule interviews with Dr. Robert Pack, please call Brad Lifford at (423) 930-0799.

ETSU receives $2.2 million NIDA grant to help battle nation's prescription drug abuse epidemic

JOHNSON CITY East Tennessee State University has received grant funding of $2,230,000 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to launch a five-year interprofessional research program aimed at battling prescription drug abuse and misuse, a problem that has reached epidemic proportions.

Drawing on investigators from the colleges of Public Health, Pharmacy and Medicine in the ETSU Academic Health Sciences Center, an interdisciplinary team will target substance abuse prevention through research on multiple fronts, while developing additional research infrastructure at the university to address the topic.

While prescription drug abuse is a problem nationwide, the Southern Appalachia region is disproportionally affected. That makes this initiative especially relevant to the region, said Dr. Robert Pack, who is the principal investigator on the grant. Pack is a professor and associate dean for Academic Affairs at the ETSU College of Public Health.

The team will study how improving communication among health care providers who prescribe drugs, pharmacists who dispense them, and the patients who receive them can reduce illicit use of prescription medicines. They will also study how well health care providers think that they communicate with patients about substance abuse, and how prepared they feel to intervene in cases of suspected substance abuse. The researchers will also quantify outcomes of drug take-back events and drug donation boxes where substances with potential for abuse are removed from households.

Pack will work with four ETSU co-investigators, including Drs. Nick Hagemeier and Jeff Gray, assistant professors of Pharmacy Practice at the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy; Dr. Fred Tudiver, professor of Family Medicine at the James H. Quillen College of Medicine; and Dr. Arsham Alamian, assistant professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the College of Public Health.

ETSU president Dr. Brian Noland said the program speaks to the university's history of conducting research that can benefit the region it serves.

"ETSU is ideally suited to help address this serious public health crisis because of the unique resources available in our Academic Health Sciences Center and because of ETSU's long-standing commitment to address our region's most serious health challenges," Noland said.

Pack and his colleagues have assembled a wealth of state and national statistics that illustrate the crisis. One of the starkest figures is the amount of hydrocodone prescribed for Tennesseans in 2010, which amounts to a veritable river of pharmaceutical narcotics. There were 272 million doses of hydrocodone prescribed in Tennessee that year, which is enough to supply 51 doses to every man, woman and child over the age of 12 in the state. In each of the 14 counties east of Knoxville, there were more than 1.4 hydrocodone prescriptions written for every person on average in 2011. Prescription drug abuse and misuse can be deadly: The U.S. Centers Disease for Control and Prevention reported last year that one person dies of an unintentional drug overdose death every 19 minutes.

"Prescription drug abuse is a disease, plain and simple, and it affects people from all walks of life," Pack said. "I would say that most everyone in our region knows someone personally a friend or a family member who has been caught in the grip of it, or still is."

The impetus for the project grew from an ETSU prescription drug abuse/misuse working group that meets on a regular basis and draws faculty, staff and students from throughout the university that are interested in researching and educating the public on the topic, Pack said.

"The working group is really the whole reason this program came together," Pack said. "It's a great example of interprofessional collaboration people from across the campus, committed to working together to deal with one of our region's major health challenges."

The competition for NIH grants of this scale is strong, and Pack said there are multiple factors that weighed in ETSU's favor in the competition. Multiple research studies, continuing education and community outreach projects related to prescription drug abuse are already in place at ETSU, and the university has an extensive record of providing leadership in rural health policy, community partnerships and rural primary care research. The AHSC is also a national leader in terms of the depth of its interprofessional approach to health professions training, spanning the colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences, and the only accredited college of Public Health in Central Appalachia.

"This won't be just an academic exercise," Pack said. "Through our research on improving communication among providers, prescribers and patients, we intend to develop real solutions to reduce the impact of prescription drug abuse in our region.

Dr. Wilsie Bishop, vice president for Health Affairs and university chief operating officer, lauded the work of the ETSU research team.

"Interprofessional collaboration is important in how we educate our students and conduct our research," Bishop said, "and it's essential to us achieving our mission of making a difference in the community and region."

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