UW–Madison joins national research network to prevent overdose deaths

To build upon existing research and develop new strategies in harm reduction, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has established a national research network to evaluate harm reduction services. The network will include a coordinating center and nine research studies at institutions across the country, including at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Harm reduction is an evidence-based, often life-saving approach that directly engages people who use drugs to prevent overdose, disease transmission, and other harms.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, professor of medicine, UW School of Medicine and Public Health, will lead a team of researchers who will test the effectiveness of remote intervention tools such as overdose prevention hotlines and support via secure smartphone applications designed to improve access to harm reduction services for underserved people, enrolling participants in both urban and rural regions of Wisconsin.

The study at UW–Madison will leverage a 10-year partnership with Vivent Health, a Wisconsin nonprofit that provides HIV/AIDS resources in Colorado, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin. Westergaard and David Seal, professor of global community health and behavioral sciences at Tulane University, have previously partnered with Vivent Health to identify ways to improve access to harm reduction services such as syringe service programs and HIV and hepatitis C testing in rural communities.

Researchers intend to collect survey data on participants’ drug use habits, risk factors, substance use disorder symptoms, life circumstances, and mental health during the study. Insights gained from the research will be shared with the NIH harm reduction research network, Wisconsin DHS, and local and tribal health organizations, to inform future research and public health campaigns.