East Tennessee State University Receives USPHS IPEC Award

Representatives of USPHS, IPEC, and ETSU.

The university is recognized for its collaborative efforts and work with the community to curb opioid use.

By Emily Jacobs

Even as health experts and community leaders across the country launch various initiatives to address the ongoing opioid crisis, the situation remains dire. In Tennessee, more than 1,186 state residents died from opioid overdoses in 2016, a rate of more than three deaths every day, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Physicians prescribed state residents a total of 6.9 million prescriptions for pain medication that same year. Law enforcement officials have seen a rise in heroin and fentanyl use, while hospital staff witnessed increased emergency room visits related to opioid use. Fragmented resources and a lack of coordination have hindered the state’s attempts to resolve this wide-reaching problem.

East Tennessee State University’s multidisciplinary opioid program recently received the 2018 Public Health Excellence in Interprofessional Education Collaboration Award. Given by the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) and the Interprofessional Education Collaborative (IPEC), the award (now in its second year) recognizes collaborators in health professional schools that take a unique approach to addressing public health issues. ETSU researchers have found that both collaboration and community focus are two major factors in curbing the opioid crisis.

ETSU’s program began in 2012, when a small group of experts gathered to discuss and brainstorm the region’s opioid problem, forming the Prescription Drug Abuse and Misuse Working Group. The working group applied for and received a five-year grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Representatives of USPHS, IPEC, and ETSU.
USPHS and IPEC recognized ETSU’s exemplary efforts to fight the opioid crisis with their submission, East Tennessee State University Responds to the Opioid Epidemic Through Interprofessional Education, Community Engagement, Research, and Clinical Care.


“That was a game-changer for us,” said Dr. Nicholas Hagemeier, associate professor at ETSU’s Gatton College of Pharmacy and a member of the original working group. “It facilitated infrastructure growth here at the university and on three research projects. From there, things just took off.”

The program now has more than 250 members, including clinicians, nonprofits, insurance company representatives, ETSU faculty and students and community members. Through its working group and two-year-old Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment, ETSU has received more than $2.4 million for opioid-related research, hosted numerous presentations about the crisis and launched a formalized opioid treatment program with the support of local health systems and government. The variety of perspectives has contributed to the value of the working group, said Hagemeier.

Partnerships Are Key

Collaboration through research is one of the factors that contributed to the program receiving the USPHS IPEC award. Many states have multiple, competing programs aimed at reducing opioid dependence. The ETSU program, however, is focused on partnerships. The program’s collaborators include not only subject-matter experts, but anyone who may see the effects of opioid use disorder: patients, family members, faith-based leaders and other community partners.

Organizations that want to replicate ETSU’s success should consider several factors. Programs should be designed not just by a university or government entity, but with community input as well. Programs should create an outline of their plan, using evidence-based practices, and continually document their results. Sustainability, rather than a short-term solution, is the key to success, said CDR Oluchi Elekwachi, USPHS, director of regulatory review at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who serves as the USPHS liaison to AACP.

USPHS IPEC Awardees at the Summer 2018 IPEC Council Meeting.
(Right to Left) Dr. Robert P. Pack, Alice McCaffrey and Angela Hagaman were presented with the USPHS IPEC award during the Summer 2018 IPEC Council Meeting in Washington, D.C.


Elekwachi noted that communication among healthcare providers and patients is often a barrier in the opioid crisis. “I think quite often we have survivors who have genuine needs, such as chronic pain or mental health, that should be addressed alongside their opiate use,” she said. “As health professionals, we need to know the whole picture of the patient.”

Among the program’s numerous collaborators, pharmacists play a crucial role. Pharmacists are uniquely positioned to contribute to patient education about appropriate opioid use and disposal, as they are highly accessible to community members. However, there is currently little research available on exactly how pharmacists can influence a patient’s drug use. As a result, pharmacists may be reluctant to challenge the status quo. One of ETSU’s goals is to promote research that can shed more light on how community pharmacists might participate in patient education and substance use disorder treatment. Targets for further study include increasing awareness of physical therapy and other non-opioid methods of pain relief, as well as medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder.

Receiving the USPHS IPEC award, Hagemeier said, helped affirm the work that ETSU is doing through the program. With support from the state of Tennessee and the university, ETSU’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment will continue to advance its understanding of the opioid epidemic. Researchers are joining the program to help develop new interventions for pharmacy and primary care settings. Researchers also intend to translate their existing findings into practical applications. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and we’re happy to help advance it,” said Hagemeier.

Emily Jacobs is a freelance writer based in Toledo, Ohio.