Opinion: Michigan's three research universities fight the opioid crisis
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 2,033 people in Michigan died of overdose deaths involving opioids in 2017, a rate of 21.2 deaths per 100,000 persons, higher than the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000. Michigan now ranks in the top third nationally for drug-related deaths, with over half due to synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl. The number of deaths was basically unchanged in 2018.
If Michigan is to reduce those numbers and save lives, it must continue to look for innovative and research-driven ways to take action. That’s why the three major state universities that make up Michigan’s University Research Corridor (URC) — Michigan State University (MSU), the University of Michigan (UM) and Wayne State University (WSU), which we head — have won millions of dollars in competitive federal funds and other grants to train more physicians and counselors statewide to become addiction medicine specialists who can treat patients.
Researchers at the three universities also are investigating new ways to keep opioid users who have kicked the habit from taking up the drug again; addressing opioid addiction in jails; finding better ways to treat chronic back pain to lessen reliance on opioids; working with the administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to develop a medical provider toolkit to help doctors follow safer opioid prescribing practices; and launching a free online course for health and social services professionals and graduate students examining ways to deal with the opioid epidemic through prevention, intervention, education and policy.
In addition, the universities are reaching out to local communities to help them address opioid addiction. MSU has formed the Rural Michigan Opioid Coalition with local leaders and health officials. In July, the coalition held a Rural Opioid Summit where leaders and health officials could learn ways and share ideas on how to better deal with opioid addiction in their communities. UM and WSU are tapping National Institutes of Health grants to conduct research that can help increase long-term recovery from opioid addiction, and UM recently hosted a statewide conference to help hospitals statewide make more medication assisted therapy available.
The work the universities are doing is one reason we welcome the series of town halls the Michigan Opioids Task Force and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services are holding this year, starting with a Jan. 17 forum at Wayne County Community College in Detroit. As medical doctors and researchers ourselves, we’re deeply concerned that more people now die of drug overdoses than car crashes in the state of Michigan, a tragedy whatever the cause for the victims, their families and friends. Opioids addiction also has a negative effect on public health and criminal justice costs and on the state’s economy. We see it in our communities and are taking steps to treat the addicted and educate others about the severe dangers these drugs pose.
But it is through our combined efforts that we hope to do the most good. Through the URC, our three universities are better able to work together on finding and implementing innovative solutions to the opioid crisis. Together, we conduct nearly 95% of the academic life science research and development in Michigan. We’re educating the many medical and biological sciences researchers who can help handle ― and find ways to lessen ― this crisis.
We’re also training thousands of physicians, nurses and other health care workers who are on the front lines in dealing with opioids and those who struggle with addiction. Four out of every 10 doctors in Michigan graduated from a URC university, and we are working to make sure more doctors recognize the signs of addiction and know how to treat it. The 2019 URC Benchmark Report shows that the URC universities awarded 5,117 undergraduate degrees in medical and biological sciences and 3,588 advanced degrees in those areas, more than any other university research cluster in the nation. The URC schools also awarded the most nursing degrees.
To further our efforts, we’ve forged vital partnerships to help lower the number of opioid deaths and decrease the numbers of those addicted. That includes working with officials at the state and federal levels, with treatment centers such as Henry Ford Maplegrove Center in West Bloomfield Township, with other prestigious universities such as Harvard University and with groups such as the National Academy of Medicine’s Action Collaborative on Countering the U.S. Opioid Epidemic.
As medical doctors and researchers, this is a cause we must win. We are pledging our three URC universities to the fight.
Samuel L. Stanley Jr. is president of Michigan State University; Mark S. Schlissel is president of the University of Michigan; and M. Roy Wilson is president of Wayne State University. Presidents Stanley and Wilson graduated together from Harvard Medical School, while Schlissel earned his medical and Ph.D. degrees from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.