University of Wisconsin researchers received a $3.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to improve the health care services surrounding opioid addiction in the Midwest.

Under the direction of senior scientist Todd Molfenter, the partnership between UW Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies and Addiction Technology Transfer Centers plans to improve upon work force development in the treatment, recovery and health care field and provide greater access to treatment for patients suffering from opioid addiction in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the rate of opioid use disorders has more than doubled since 2005, and opioid related deaths have been on the rise since 1999. 

“While Wisconsin is by no means the state most adversely affected by the opioid epidemic, there is undoubtedly room for improvement,” Molfenter said.

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The general cause for this epidemic stemmed from the liberal prescribing practices of health care providers in the 1990’s, as well as the American public’s inherent interest in alcohol and drugs, Molfenter said.

The addictive and potentially lethal properties of opioids were greatly underestimated, Molfenter said. The availability of pain relievers for patients suffering from chronic pain rose as a result.

Accidental deaths became increasingly more common as patients would take time off from the opioids they were using and start up again with the same dosage they were taking before, Molfenter said. The body’s resistance goes down quickly over time, and patient’s run the risk of overdosing.

Although prescription painkillers are becoming less available, and the criteria patients must meet before being prescribed opioids is more stringent, the use of heroin and fentanyl remain a growing concern, Molfenter said.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported that heroin-related deaths have been on the rise since 2005. Heroin is being used increasingly as a substitute for prescription pain relievers as it is cheaper and in greater availability. 

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Though Molfenter is confident the grant from CHESS will allow GLATTC and researchers at UW to continue to make strides in combating the opioid epidemic. This money will enable further research and development in treatment and technologies.

Researchers are currently working on improving mobile apps for families with patients of opioid addiction, allowing them resources outside of formal treatment, Molfenter said.

“This trend [of mobile apps] in society is one that could really benefit patients and their families,” Molfenter said, “and it gives researchers a better idea of how family support impacts patients.”

Improving workforce development, training, technical assistance and equipment are all areas that will be targeted with the grant money as well, Molfenter said

Molfenter said recruiting and retaining people in this field is challenging as this field is not viewed as “attractive” and training programs in health care do not focus as heavily on addiction and treatment.

“We want our therapists and physicians treating patients with the best practices possible,” Molfenter said. “Better training will help peer recovery specialists to feel even more skilled and confident.”

But with this grant, Molfenter believes better training and more job opportunities will be made possible. He said a greater interest has been taken in the field, and people have started to find it incredibly rewarding.

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Moreover, the health disparities within GLATTC, Molfenter said are being addressed in terms of socioeconomic status and race.

“Making treatment and recovery possible for all people and all demographics is a major priority of this program,” Molfenter said.

Community and law enforcement support has always been and will continue to be crucial to combatting the opioid epidemic. Madison Police Department spokesperson Joel Despain said MPD is on the “cutting edge” of eradicating the opioid epidemic in the Madison area and nationally.

MPD views users as victims, and offers them treatment over jail time as often as possible, Despain said. MPD’s job is to focus on the dealers through drug task forces, not the users who are victims of lethal drugs.

MPD has also been aggressive in its approach to combat opioid abuse, and will continue to work with the community, Despain said.

“Any effort to bolster treatment, research, support and so on is good,” Despain said. “It’s what we need to continue to keep the public safe and to stop the abuse of illicit drugs.”