People are seeking help for opioid-use disorder in ever-growing numbers, but only 10 percent of them stay in treatment for recovery.

Those lagging recovery rates are a concern for scientists and communities fighting the opioid crisis in Appalachia. Researchers suspect better peer support services may be the key to reverse the trend.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse recently awarded a $2.6 million grant to researchers at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) to develop studies on how best to provide peer support services for individuals being treated for opioid use disorder. Virginia Tech has a $1.1 million subcontract for research led by Kim Horn, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and in the Department of Population Health Sciences in Virginia Tech’s Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. 

The Studies To Advance Recovery Support (STARS) Network, which will involve researchers across multiple universities and health care systems, will center on the urgent need for research to advance recovery support services in Central Appalachia. 

The goal of the partnership is to build research networks and capacity around addiction recovery support services in general and specifically around those people who are using medications to treat their opioid use disorder in combination with counseling and other support services.

Principal investigators for the project are Robert Pack, associate dean and professor in the ETSU College of Public Health and executive director of ETSU’s Addiction Science Center, and Horn.

Both are nationally recognized experts on the prevention and treatment of substance use disorders with a number of funded research studies and published manuscripts on this topic.  

“It is important for people in treatment to interact with others like themselves — people who have successfully navigated the same journey in their community and who can give them support as they rebuild their lives,” Horn said. “We need to figure out how to create a recovery ecosystem that bridges the gaps. We intend for this project to gear us up to study the effects and key features of peer support models. Without these types of studies, the value of peer support models may not be fully realized in our communities.”

The STARS Network will capitalize on the existing Opioid Research Consortium of Central Appalachia (ORCCA), established in 2019 and jointly run by Horn and Pack, to bring together scientists and communities to address the opioid crisis in Central Appalachia through community-engaged research.

“STARS will use creative methods to engage treatment providers and peer recovery support specialists to generate a better understanding of the continuum of treatment services in Central Appalachia,” said Pack. “The ultimate goal is to better understand what works in a variety of settings, so that long-term recovery support services are readily accessible for persons suffering from substance use disorder.

“Recovery can be greatly facilitated through peer support services – engaging with nonclinical people who have had similar lived experiences with addiction and who are in long-term recovery,” Pack added. “Exactly how those services work is one of the main areas of focus for the new grant.”

In addition to ETSU and Virginia Tech, other ORCCA partners include Ballad Health, Carilion Clinic, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Marshall University, and West Virginia University.

The work will be facilitated by long-standing university-community collaborations in both regions, including the Addiction Science Center Working Group in Northeast Tennessee, chaired by Pack, and the Roanoke Valley Collective Response, a  group co-chaired by Horn that comprises more than 130 organizations and nearly 300 members representing professionals and community members.

Taking full advantage of peer support may be an essential element for progress in recovery rates.