Opioid crisis requires social and behavioral research solutions

Each day, more Americans die from drug overdoses (175) than from motor vehicle accidents (110). Many of these overdoses are accidental, and some are intentional, but nearly all are the result of social and behavioral factors. In response to the opioid crisis, the NIH convened a meeting on March 5-6, 2018, “Contributions of Social and Behavioral Research in Addressing the Opioid Crisis.” This meeting was part of the NIH Cutting-Edge Science Meeting Series to End the Opioid Crisis, and was led by the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) partnering with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), and the NIH Immediate Office of the Director (IMOD).

The goals of the meeting were to specify key actionable social and behavioral science findings that can be brought to bear immediately to address the opioid crisis, and identify critical short-term research priorities that have the potential to improve the opioid crisis response. To advance these goals, participants described current research findings and identified high priority scientific gaps and recommendations organized in five panels:

Panel 1: Sociocultural and socioeconomic underpinnings of the crisis;

Panel 2: Behavioral and social factors preventing opioid initiation and mitigating the transition from acute to chronic opioid use;

Panel 3:  Incorporating nonpharmacologic approaches to the treatment of opioid abuse and chronic pain management;

Panel 4: Challenges and barriers to implementing prevention and treatment strategies; and

Panel 5: Effective models of integrated approaches.

These panels generated several “key things we know” and “key things we need to know” to address the opioid crisis that will be included in a meeting summary that will be posted this month. I was impressed by the breadth and diversity of social and behavioral research findings that, if implemented, could have an immediate impact on reducing opioid use. This meeting agenda, participant list, and video recording, are available on the NIH HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative web page. The meeting summary will be posted on this web page later this month.

With an additional $500 million appropriated for opioid addiction research, the NIH will nearly double the funding available to study opioid addiction, from $600 million in 2016 to $1.1 billion in 2018. The “Contributions of Social and Behavioral Research in Addressing the Opioid Crisis” meeting provides a useful framework for integrating social and behavioral research questions in the HEAL Initiative. OBSSR will continue to work with the NIH Institutes and Centers involved in the NIH Health Initiative to ensure that developing research initiatives address some of the key research priorities identified by this meeting. The social and behavioral sciences already have contributed substantially to the knowledge base needed to address this crisis. What is needed now is greater implementation of what we already know and a serious, concerted research effort to answer key research questions to improve our ability to address this crisis.