The opioid epidemic is such a massive problem, it would probably be impossible to tackle without a collaborative solution, said Barbara Wolfe, professor emerita of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Think about the extensiveness. It involves doctors in their office prescribing pills. It’s influenced by the activities of the pharmaceutical industry,” Wolfe said. “It’s influenced by what’s happening in a community in terms of access to illegal drugs. It’s tied in with support services … It has an influence on how the labor market works. It’s just so big that it needs people in many disciplines.”
That’s why the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty is joining a National Academy of Medicine network of over 100 groups aiming to counter the opioid epidemic. Wolfe is the IRP’s representative NAM member.
“We need to communicate better with the different groups that are involved in either research, as we are, or do more direct hands-on (efforts),” Wolfe said, adding this is a “relatively low-cost way to encourage communication amongst groups that are active in the area.”
The network will act as a source of information “so we are kept abreast of what others are doing,” Wolfe said. But it’s also a way to draw attention to the problem and encourage others to take part in the work, she said.
The cross-discipline nature of the effort is essential, Wolfe said. Wolfe herself has received funding for a cross-discipline project that looks at risk-taking among children, including illegal drug use, in partnership with a psychologist from UW’s Waisman Center.
Additionally, IRP Director Lawrence Berger is working with Deborah Ehrenthal, associate professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health, on a research project to “better understand opioid exposure during pregnancy and how that affects kids,” Ehrenthal said.
“We work with an integrated data that will enable us to really understand the who, what, where and when of opioid use during pregnancy in Wisconsin,” she said.
Research on the opioid epidemic has specific relevance to the IRP, Berger said in a statement.
“The Institute for Research on Poverty is joining this nationwide effort to counter the opioid epidemic because, although it affects people of all levels of socioeconomic status, those with limited resources are the least able to counter its devastating effects,” Berger said.
A 2018 research brief from the IRP looks at some of the connections between opioid use and low income and education levels.
- Deaths from overdose have increased across all education groups, but “those with less than a high school education lost the most years of life.”
- Over 80% of hospital charges for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, babies experiencing withdrawal from drugs due to the mother’s drug use, were covered by Medicaid in 2012.
- A recent study suggested that individuals with less education “may have fewer disincentives and greater risk factors for engaging in drug use than their more educated counterparts,” pointing to factors like bad job prospects, stagnant or declining earnings, and chronic health conditions.
Research has shown a correlation between substance use and the number of children going into child welfare, said Deborah Johnson, senior editor for the IRP.
“Obviously, this is affecting everybody, but there are special issues when people are poor,” Johnson said, like a lack of health insurance that makes it difficult to find treatment.