Using Data Science to Reduce Opioid Deaths

Columbia University’s School of Social Work has been awarded $86 million over multiple years (pending availability of annual funds) from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, to support research intended to reduce opioid deaths across New York State. ​

Nabila El-Bassel, University Professor and the Willma and Albert Musher Professor of Social Work,​ and her colleagues secured this major funding based on their community-focused public health interventions. “​We are planning a rapid public health response to the current opioid epidemic in New York State, focusing on policy and system changes by working with the criminal justice system, health care organizations, emergency rooms, schools, and drug treatment programs,” she said.

“The opioid epidemic is a national crisis that is causing devastation throughout society,” said Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger. “With this grant, Professor El-Bassel and her team are providing thoughtful and necessary leadership on this critical issue, working with government and academic partners to put in place effective, proven interventions that will save lives.”

NIDA is allocating funding to three other research sites that will contribute to a multi-year study, which is part of the​ ​NIH HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative​, a bold, trans-agency effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid crisis. The study is being carried out in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which provides support for many of the local prevention, treatment, and recovery support services to be studied.

This federal grant, one of Columbia’s largest ever, brings together Columbia’s School of Social Work, the Department of Psychiatry, the Mailman School of Public Health, the Data Science Institute, as well as researchers from Albert Einstein School of Medicine/Montefiore School of Medicine, City University of New York, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York University School of Medicine, University of Miami, and Yale School of Medicine.

Columbia University will be working in 15 pre-selected New York counties that have been heavily affected by the opioid crisis. The project will be conducted in collaboration with the county health commissioners and driven by robust community engagement and real-time learning rooted in data and systems science.  El-Bassel and the investigative team’s brought together New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services, New York State Department of Health, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and 15 state and local health or mental health commissioners to coordinate their efforts to help solve this intractable issue. “The opioid epidemic has heart-wrenching consequences for families throughout the United States, and I am proud that the Columbia School of Social Work will make a significant contribution to reducing this plague in New York,” said Columbia School of Social Work Interim Dean Irwin Garfinkel. “I am confident that under El-Bassel’s direction this work has the potential to change countless lives for the better.”

In the past 30 years at Columbia, El-Bassel has been working in marginalized communities to address ​HIV, substance abuse, and intimate partner violence. In many cases, her work has led to interventions that have become the gold standard for best practices. In addition to her field work, she has published in more than 260 peer-reviewed journals and her papers have been cited over 8,000 times.

“I am delighted to be leading this extraordinarily innovative study with such an outstanding group of scientists,” El-Bassel said. “Our goals are ambitious. We plan to reduce opioid overdose fatalities by at least 40 percent within less than four years in 15 of the most burdened counties in New York State. There is no time to waste; we have lost far too many people to this epidemic.”

— Robert Florida, Data Science Institute

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