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This Pitt researcher is using data to fight the opioid epidemic

  • Health and Wellness
  • Innovation and Research
  • School of Public Health

Pennsylvania’s opioid epidemic knows no boundaries or borders. It touches rural and urban areas, former steel towns and bustling downtowns. And approaches to fighting the epidemic are as diverse as the people it impacts.

Pitt’s Jeanine Buchanich, a research associate professor in the School of Public Health, is taking a big-picture approach to figuring out what programs will best tackle the problem.

Since 2019, she has partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Health to evaluate community-based programs using data tracking and analysis, funded by an Overdose Data to Action grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Buchanich has evaluated public health interventions as varied as community-level training for first responders on naloxone use and stigma reduction; county and municipal health department prevention efforts; the Patient Advocacy Program, which helps patients who have been prescribed controlled substances; local and statewide provider education efforts and Pennsylvania’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.

Though her reports are still under review by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Buchanich offered some general insight into her findings as the epidemic continues and public health organizations grapple with opioids both in and outside of health care settings.

One program with notable success is the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.

“There’s been a lot of effort in Pennsylvania regarding prescribing education,” she said. “We are asking how educational efforts to help medical professionals align their prescribing practices with the best-known evidence ensures patients are either getting appropriate amounts of opioids when needed or are prescribed non-opioid pain relief whenever possible.”

[Half a decade ago, a Pitt team forecasted the devastating toll of the opioid epidemic.]

Her analysis shows that prescribers intend to change their practices, as well as an improvement in knowledge.

“What's wonderful is when we look at changes in prescribing using Prescription Drug Monitoring data, we see reductions in morphine milligram equivalents — that is, small dosages of opioids prescribed to patients. We’re also seeing fewer overlapping prescriptions, particularly overlapping opioids of benzodiazepine prescriptions that could increase a patient’s risk of fatal or nonfatal overdose,” Buchanich said.

The successful interventions are also important examples of the value of accessible public health data, she noted. With data comes insight and with insight comes better interventions in the taming of the prescription opioid and heroin overdose epidemic in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention infused a fourth year of funding into Pennsylvania’s Overdose Data to Action grant, and Buchanich is hoping she has more positive outcomes to report in the coming year.


— Nichole Faina