AUSTIN, Texas — The rate of opioid and other drug overdoses is on the rise in Texas, but there has been no statewide system to collect overdose data—until now. An interdisciplinary team of developers, designers, clinical partners and researchers led by Dell Medical School and the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin has created a digital reporting and surveillance system to track drug overdoses statewide.
Known as Project CONNECT, the program aims to provide a more complete picture of the overdose crisis in Texas and guide future interventions. The effort is funded by the Texas Targeted Opioid Response (TTOR) program at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
The Project CONNECT team has already conducted a four-month pilot with harm reduction groups in Williamson, El Paso, Bexar and Travis counties, and it is now preparing to launch the platform statewide.
“Based on anecdotal evidence, between 50% and 90% of overdoses in Texas go unreported,” said Kasey Claborn, Ph.D., lead researcher on the project and an assistant professor at both Dell Med and the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. “One of the biggest hurdles to solving this crisis is the lack of accurate, consistent and timely statewide data available on both fatal and nonfatal overdoses.
“Project CONNECT will track overdoses by location—and as they happen—creating huge data pools that can be used to understand the scope of the problem and get life-saving resources to the areas and people who need them,” said Claborn, who is also a Steve Hicks fellow in addiction and recovery services.
The current reporting gap—and the uncounted overdoses it represents—extends beyond opioid use.
“We’ve been seeing a rise in stimulant, cocaine and meth overdoses within the last five years, which has been amplified during COVID,” said Claborn.
To improve overdose reporting, Dell Med’s information technology team worked with Google Cloud partner Maven Wave to develop a pilot reporting site, TxCOPE.org: Texans Connecting Overdose Prevention Efforts. TxCOPE is an application and web-based digital platform designed to track overdose data by a variety of groups, gathering input including demographics, overdose event details and the use of drugs such as naloxone to reverse overdoses.
“The research data gathered during the pilot will help us develop digital platforms uniquely tailored to various end users, from health care workers and first responders to harm reduction groups and the community at large,” said Andrea Daugherty, interim chief information officer at Dell Med. “This robust tracking system is designed to gather key metrics about overdose trends across the state and deliver that info to people who can put it to use, including those who direct funding and allocation of resources.”
That’s especially important to harm reduction groups, which can also use the TxCOPE website to order supplies including life-saving drugs such as naloxone.
“We need real-time, actionable data to improve overdose prevention and response efforts,” said Daniel Sledge, lead outreach paramedic for the Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team, which serves as a link between people using substances and local resources. “But to create a system people will actually use, first we need a genuine understanding of the barriers to reporting overdoses. That includes fear of legal repercussions among users and their communities, social stigma and concerns over the anonymity of data they submit to a reporting site.”
Focusing on Collaboration
To develop a comprehensive picture of existing barriers, Project CONNECT worked with community advisory boards at the four pilot sites across Texas to identify obstacles to secure, accurate data collection. In addition, the team has also interviewed more than 100 people in the community, including those who use drugs, harm reductionists, first responders, health care workers and other key stakeholders.
The knowledge gained from these advisory boards, along with the pilot study, will help the team create an implementation protocol that can be scaled statewide. The team aims to have that protocol ready for launch by early 2022.
In October, the Dell Med-led cohort received a Google Cloud Customer Award for the TxCOPE platform—the only winner in the 2021 Education category.
Several additional TTOR projects are led by expert faculty and staff members at UT Austin, including:
- The College of Pharmacy’s PhARM Program, led by Lucas Hill, Pharm.D., which offers free online continuing education for health professionals through the Texas Opioid Training Initiative.
- The Center for Health Communication, directed by Michael Mackert, Ph.D., leads projects to promote use of the prescription monitoring program and to develop a statewide opioid misuse prevention public awareness campaign.
- Fiona Conway, Ph.D., at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work leads a project developing an app-based tool that uses biofeedback to help participants stay aware of drug cravings and interrupt them.
- Maureen Nichols at the Addiction Research Institute at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work leads a project team offering programmatic training and technical assistance to support TTOR-funded recovery support services and programs.
- Blair Walker, M.D., Christopher Moriates, M.D., and Richard Bottner, PA-C, lead the B-Team, which offers medication for opioid use disorder in the hospital setting and connects patients to peer-led recovery support. With Alanna Boulton, MSHS, this group also administers the Support Hospital Opioid Use Disorder Treatment (SHOUT) Texas program, which works to expand access to opioid use disorder treatment services in hospitals across Texas.