There’s a new approach to addressing the opioid crisis in Philadelphia: prevent addiction from happening in the first place. At the Care Clinic, a federally-qualified community health center run by the nonprofit Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC), people who suffer from chronic pain learn to manage their symptoms in a way that keeps them from slipping into opioid abuse. Housed in the clinic’s Pain Academy, this preventative care differs from typical treatments that help people after addiction sets in, though it’s not yet clear just how effective it is.
Thanks to a collaboration between PHMC and the College of Public Health, that may soon change.
Michael Halpern, an associate professor in the Department of Health Services Administration and Policy, and Travis Cos, a clinical psychologist at the Care Clinic, are conducting the first evaluation of the year-old program. They’re gauging how well it’s worked so far and looking for ways to improve it.
The work came about thanks to meetings, and a small grant, from last year’s Community-Driven Research Day, an event where faculty from Temple, Thomas Jefferson and Drexel Universities and the University of Pennsylvania meet with community-based organizations to discuss research and potential collaborations.
At the event last December, Halpern connected with representatives from PHMC, which runs six clinics in Philadelphia, including the Care Clinic. From there, he learned about the Pain Academy.
“It’s a very innovative program. It’s patient-focused and engages people to take the lead in their own health,” says Halpern. “It’s not prescriptive. Instead, it gives people information about pain management, offers alternative strategies and encourages them to find what works best for them.”
The Pain Academy takes a preventive approach with people who are at risk for opioid abuse due to their chronic pain. Misuse of opioid medication is a common occurrence: according the Centers for Disease Control, prescriptions for opioid drugs quadrupled from 1999 to 2014. During the same period, deaths related to opioid overdose rose at nearly the same rate.
Over three educational sessions, participants in the Pain Academy learn about pain management in general, alternatives to opioids and the proper use of opioid-based medication if they are the best option.
Now, Halpern is working with Care Clinic staff and two College of Public Health faculty members—Associate Professor Marsha Zibalese-Crawford of the School of Social Work and Assistant Professor Christen Rexing of the Department of Health Services Administration and Policy—to help the program reach its potential.
To do so, the research team is reviewing electronic medical records of Pain Academy participants, without their identifying information, and determining outcomes of the program. Then, they’ll host focus groups to find out what’s changed in those people’s lives and what aspects of the program could be improved.
The study began in June of 2017 and runs for twelve months. If the data looks positive, says Halpern, he and his colleagues will look for additional funding for a broader study. The focus at that point would be taking what’s most effective and finding ways to implement that at similar centers in Philadelphia and other places.
“This is a program that can really empower patients,” says Halpern. “It has tremendous potential.”’