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April 15, 2019 Focus on health care

UMass Memorial wins $200K for opioid telemedicine device

Photo | TMS Aerial Solutions UMass Memorial Medical Center has prioritized programs fighting the opioid epidemic, including a new program aimed at helping doctors consult virtually with overdose patients.
Jeffrey Lai
Amy Costigan
Kavita Babu
Karla Rodriguez

A plan to evaluate opioid overdose patients using technology known as telemedicine has received an annual prize and funding from the UMass Memorial Medical Group.

The $200,000 award-winning proposal would allow doctors to talk with emergency department patients through tablet-based video. The program is meant to replicate face-to-face doctor-and-patient interactions and allow experts to evaluate those suspected of an overdose to determine the best plan for care.

The winning team was four UMass Memorial Health Care physicians: Kavita Babu, Amy Costigan, Jeffrey Lai and Karla Rodriguez. The competition, called the Prize for Academic Collaboration and Excellence, or PACE, Award, is given annually to research projects conducted by UMass staff.

The team's research fits into state legislation requiring a substance abuse disorder evaluation of all patients suspected of an opioid overdose. The process is known as substance use disorder evaluation, or SUDE. The UMass team's initiative is called TeleSUDE, a play on that industry term.

“TeleSUDE is really a novel, unobtrusive, and effective telemedicine platform to provide immediate bedside SUDE at remote [emergency departments] in our hospital system,” said Lai, who practices emergency medicine.

The team plans to train clinicians on the TeleSUDE system, which will use software compliant with patient confidentiality requirements. UMass said it plans to roll out the system over the next three months and include its emergency departments in Clinton, Marlborough and Worcester.

The opioid battle

Babu, a toxicologist and emergency medicine physician and the hospital's chief opioid officer, chairs a task force UMass created last September to collect data on opioid use, establish priorities for patient care initiatives and catalog efforts to prevent and treat opioid use.

The task force is made up of content experts, bedside caregivers and leaders from across the healthcare organization.

Just weeks after the task force's creation, the U.S. Department of Justice named Worcester one of 12 cities or programs statewide to receive funding for opioid prevention, treatment and enforcement efforts. The city received $745,000.

The latest official tallies of opioid overdoses show more efforts are needed.

Worcester recorded 114 opioid deaths in 2017, the latest year for which the state Department of Public Health has published data. The city had only 95 such fatal overdoses during a five-year period ending in 2005, showing how much the health crisis has worsened.

Fatal overdoses more than doubled both across Worcester County and statewide from 2013 to 2017. The picture has gotten relatively better in the past two years, even as deaths remain high, as initiatives such as stricter prescription guidelines take effect.

Massachusetts had a 4% reduction in opioid deaths in 2018 compared to the previous year, following a 2% decline in 2017. Still, preliminary estimates have shown 1,974 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths last year.

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