Researcher to lead national opioid crisis steering committee

By Sally Crocker

Scott Walters WebScott Walters, PhD, Regents Professor and Chair of Health Behavior and Health Systems at the UNT Health Science Center School of Public Health, has been named Steering Committee Chair of an aggressive, trans-agency effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid crisis.

More than $350 million will support the multi-year HEALing Communities Study, part of the NIH HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-Term) Initiative.

Four independent research sites – at Boston Medical Center, Columbia University in New York, Ohio State University and the University of Kentucky – will build on extensive, well-established NIH research to implement, test and evaluate a set of proven prevention and treatment strategies for opioid overdose, recovery and support.

“My role as Steering Committee Chair will be like that of a stage manager, to keep track of all aspects of the project and make sure people have what they need to keep things moving,” Dr. Walters said. “What makes this project unique is the scope of the problem we’re addressing and the way it brings solutions together across different channels, including health care, behavioral health, the justice system and other community-based settings.”

The rise in misuse of prescription pain relievers, heroin and synthetic opioids has contributed to the crisis, and people in communities affected by economic downturn have been at especially high risk, Dr. Walters said.

The study will track outcomes such as drug fatalities, medication access, prescribing patterns and treatment initiation. Its goal is to reduce opioid deaths by at least 40 percent over a three-year period in nearly 70 communities hard hit by the opioid crisis across Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio.

“This project will create a national model for curbing the opioid crisis,” Dr. Walters said. “Nearly 50,000 people died from opioid overdose in 2017, and millions of other Americans are struggling with drug dependence. Overdose rates in some communities have become so great that it’s really a moral imperative for us to find solutions.”

The study is being conducted under a cooperative agreement supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of NIH, in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

As a public health professor and researcher, Dr. Walters’ work has focused on the use of motivational interviewing and technology for behavioral health and substance abuse solutions among different populations, including probationers, homeless adults, veterans, victims of interpersonal violence, young adults and low-income individuals with mental health conditions.

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