NIH-funded intervention did not impact opioid-related overdose death rates over evaluation period

June 17, 2024
Over 100,000 people are now dying annually of a drug overdose, with over 75% of those deaths involving an opioid.

A data-driven intervention that engaged communities to rapidly deploy evidence-based practices to reduce opioid-related overdose deaths – such as increasing naloxone distribution and enhancing access to medication for opioid use disorder – did not result in a statistically significant reduction in opioid-related overdose death rates during the evaluation period, according to results from the National Institutes of Health’s HEALing (Helping to End Addiction Long-Term) Communities Study.

Researchers identified the COVID-19 pandemic and increased prevalence of fentanyl in the illicit drug market – including in mixtures with cocaine and methamphetamine – as factors that likely weakened the impact of the intervention on reducing opioid-related overdose deaths.

The findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at the College on Problems of Drug Dependence (CPDD) meeting on Sunday, June 16, 2024. Launched in 2019, the HEALing Communities Study is the largest addiction prevention and treatment implementation study ever conducted and took place in 67 communities in Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio – four states that have been hard hit by the opioid crisis.

Despite facing unforeseen challenges, the HEALing Communities Study successfully engaged communities to select and implement hundreds of evidence-based strategies over the course of the intervention, demonstrating how leveraging community partnerships and using data to inform public health decisions can effectively support the uptake of evidence-based strategies at the local level.

NIH launched the HEALing Communities Study, a four-year, multisite research study to test a set of evidence-based interventions for reducing overdose deaths across healthcare, justice, and behavioral health settings. 

As part of the intervention, researchers collaborated with community coalitions to implement evidence-based practices for reducing opioid overdose deaths from the Opioid-Overdose Reduction Continuum of Care Approach. These evidence-based practices focus on increasing opioid education and naloxone distribution, enhancing access to medication for opioid use disorder, and safer opioid prescribing and dispensing. The intervention also included a series of communication campaigns to help reduce stigma and increase the demand for evidence-based practices.

Communities were randomly assigned to either receive the intervention (between January 2020 and June 2022) or to the control group (which received the intervention between July 2022 and December 2023). To test the effectiveness of the intervention on reducing opioid-related overdose deaths, researchers compared the rate of overdose deaths between the communities that received the intervention immediately with those that did not during the period of July 2021 and June 2022.

Between January 2020 and June 2022, intervention communities successfully implemented 615 evidence-based practice strategies (254 related to overdose education and naloxone distribution, 256 related to medications for opioid use disorder, and 105 related to prescription opioid safety).

Despite the success in deploying evidence-based interventions in participating communities, between July 2021 and June 2022, there was not a statistically significant difference in the overall rate of opioid-involved overdose deaths between the communities receiving the intervention and those that did not, (47.2 opioid-related overdose deaths per 100,000 people in the intervention group, versus 51.7 in the control). The study team is also examining data on the impact of the intervention on total overdose deaths and examining specific drug combinations, such as stimulants and opioids, and on non-fatal opioid overdoses, among other study outcomes.

NIH release