Hampshire Hope: DART takes national stage

Published: 5/3/2021 4:21:49 PM

A snippet of video included in our Hampshire HOPE presentation at the 2021 RX Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit drove our point home better than any PowerPoint ever could. Seated at a table was Adam Van Buskirk, a founding officer in the Northampton Police Department’s post-overdose response team known as DART, listening to a cellphone message he received from a woman he had worked with as a DART officer.

“I’ll never forget you bringing me to detox,” the caller said. She let Van Buskirk know that she had since moved to the Boston area, gotten a job — and was doing just fine. Van Buskirk is now a detective on the Northampton force and no longer part of the DART team, but the impact he’s had during his time as a DART officer reverberates to this day.

“I just want you to know that you really saved my life that day, because if you didn’t care, I would have continued to use and I would have died,” the caller said. “I wouldn’t have been able to bring my life together if it wasn’t for your help.”

We played that video during our 90-minute session “From Outreach to Outcomes: A Call for Consistent Measures Across Post-Overdose Outreach Interventions” presented by us and researcher Scott Formica on Monday, April 5. Granted, that title may sound like a bit of a snoozer for some people. For data geeks like us — and for many of the people who turn out annually for the largest national conference convened to address the nation’s opioid overdose death epidemic — it is anything but.

We’ve joined that summit, which draws thousands of people from all over the world, nearly every year since Hampshire HOPE was founded. Some years, we’ve gone as participants with teams of people from Hampshire County communities, and some years we have been both presenters and participants. We are drawn there because we believe finding ways to stop needless heroin and prescription drug deaths is an urgent matter and we want to learn about the best strategies being used around the country. As with everything we do in the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition, we want to save lives.

Both this year and last year, the four-day summit was held on a Zoom platform, which meant we recorded our segment, but then showed up virtually for a live question-and-answer session. We were not the only presenters from western Massachusetts: Dr. Ruth Potee, medical director of the Franklin House of Correction and Franklin Sheriff Christopher J. Donelan talked about their collaboration in bringing suboxone and methadone treatment to inmates in the jail.

During times when we weren’t presenting, we were free to check out other sessions, which included plenary lectures by, among others, President Joe Biden, and smaller breakouts with highly-focused topics. We attended Multidisciplinary Overdose Fatality Review Teams in New Jersey and Northern Kentucky and Reducing Opioid Use Disorder Stigma: Applying a Collective Impact Model and Contact-Based Strategies in Pennsylvania, among others.

Our three-person presentation on the day the conference kicked off drew an audience of about 240 viewers. Our partner in the session was someone with whom we’ve worked previously: Scott Formica, senior research scientist with the Burlington, Massachusetts-based Social Sciences Research and Evaluation Inc. Formica has been studying the efficacy of post-overdose intervention programs like DART since 2015, about a year before the DART program was launched in Northampton.

Since then, DART has expanded into all Hampshire County towns, and some version of it has more recently moved into several Hampden County towns with plans afoot to launch similar programs incorporating EMS workers in Berkshire County.

We told our audience that we believe post-overdose interventions fundamentally must be rooted in the principles of harm reduction, in which we meet people where they are as we together try to figure out what they need as individuals while also assessing and analyzing larger systems to identify the gaps in our community responses. To simplify that: we want to be better helpers to people who are dealing with substance use disorders.

We believe when evaluating programs like DART it is not enough to crunch numbers. How you define success in a program like this must be considered within the context of a particular community, and we believe there are many important indicators in addition to numbers. For example: What is the quality of interactions between response teams and the person who overdosed? How are syringe access programs and detox programs and treatment programs integrated into this network so that when a person is ready to seek treatment, help is at hand.

Another key factor to seriously consider in programs like DART is the way data is collected. We’ve been building a fairly complex case management system housed in the Northampton Health Department that is HIPPA-compliant, respecting the privacy of the people we interact with while also allowing us to capture information that will help us better understand community needs, for example, where Narcan needs to go.

We also seek to better understand what strategies are improving the environment for people with substance use disorders and what are continued barriers, such as transportation, childcare, employment. These are all issues Hampshire HOPE can play a role in galvanizing community partners to work together to improve.

Our main guide posts as we have developed our local DART programs — and as they continue to evolve — have been collecting data with ethics at the forefront, working to dismantle stigma and reducing and avoiding unintended consequences.

With another national RX Summit behind us, we return to our work energized and more committed than ever — with a few more tools in our box.

J. Cherry Sullivan is coordinator for the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the Northampton Health Department and Michele Farry is regional DART coordinator for the coalition. Members and staff from Hampshire HOPE contribute to this monthly column.


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