Dennis P. Watson

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The opioid epidemic has touched every corner of our nation. Decades of scientific evidence demonstrates pragmatic harm reduction approaches (e.g., syringe exchanges, opioid substitution, and naloxone access) are key to more effective opioid-related prevention and treatment, yet wide-held misconceptions regarding substance use and substance users have impeded their impact. These misconceptions are rooted in an ideology of “bootstrap individualism” and popular 12-step/abstinence-only approaches that have little scientific support. Thus, dissemination and implementation of scientific findings into opioid-related policy and practice is of critical importance.

Dr. Dennis Watson’s work in this area developed from his professional interests in mental health, substance use, and community need for research. In collaboration with Dr. Bradley Ray, his projects examine the opioid epidemic in Indiana. This includes three federally-funded evaluation studies of different Indiana-based prevention and treatment efforts and a study of the implementation and effectiveness of an emergency department-based intervention for connecting opioid overdose survivors to medication-assisted treatment. A major focus of his current work is ensuring effective communication of results to community members, advocates, and legislators, through his work with an interdisciplinary team of researchers.

Dr. Watson’s work to disseminate and implement scientific findings into opioid-related policy and practice in Indiana is another example of how IUPUI faculty are TRANSLATING RESEARCH INTO PRACTICE.


Recent Submissions

Now showing 1 - 10 of 28
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    Barriers impacting the POINT pragmatic trial: the unavoidable overlap between research and intervention procedures in “real-world” research
    (BMC, 2021-02-04) Dir, Allyson L.; Watson, Dennis P.; Zhiss, Matthew; Taylor, Lisa; Bray, Bethany C.; McGuire, Alan; Psychiatry, School of Medicine
    Background: This manuscript provides a research update to the ongoing pragmatic trial of Project POINT (Planned Outreach, Intervention, Naloxone, and Treatment), an emergency department-based peer recovery coaching intervention for linking patients with opioid use disorder to evidence-based treatment. The research team has encountered a number of challenges related to the "real-world" study setting since the trial began. Using an implementation science lens, we sought to identify and describe barriers impacting both the intervention and research protocols of the POINT study, which are often intertwined in pragmatic trials due to the focus on external validity. Method: Qualitative data were collected from 3 peer recovery coaches, 2 peer recovery coach supervisors, and 3 members of the research team. Questions and deductive qualitative analysis were guided by the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR). Results: Nine unique barriers were noted, with 5 of these barriers impacting intervention and research protocol implementation simultaneously. These simultaneous barriers were timing of intervention delivery, ineffective communication with emergency department staff, lack of privacy in the emergency department, the fast-paced emergency department setting, and patient's limited resources. Together, these barriers represent the intervention characteristics, inner setting, and outer setting domains of the CFIR. Conclusion: Results highlight the utility of employing an implementation science framework to assess implementation issues in pragmatic trials and how this approach might be used as a quality assurance mechanism given the considerable overlap that exists between research and intervention protocols in real-world trial settings. Previously undocumented changes to the trial design that have been made as a result of the identified barriers are discussed.
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    Fostering Local Health Department and Health System Collaboration Through Case Conferences for At-Risk and Vulnerable Population
    (American Public Health Association, 2018-05) Vest, Joshua R.; Caine, Virginia; Harris, Lisa E.; Watson, Dennis P.; Menachemi, Nir; Halverson, Paul; Health Policy and Management, School of Public Health
    In case conferences, health care providers work together to identify and address patients' complex social and medical needs. Public health nurses from the local health department joined case conference teams at federally qualified health center primary care sites to foster cross-sector collaboration, integration, and mutual learning. Public health nurse participation resulted in frequent referrals to local health department services, greater awareness of public health capabilities, and potential policy interventions to address social determinants of health.
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    Identifying Unreported Opioid Deaths Through Toxicology Data and Vital Records Linkage: Case Study in Marion County, Indiana, 2011–2016
    (American Public Health Association, 2018-12) Lowder, Evan M.; Ray, Bradley R.; Huynh, Philip; Ballew, Alfarena; Watson, Dennis P.; School of Public and Environmental Affairs
    Objectives. To demonstrate the severity of undercounting opioid-involved deaths in a local jurisdiction with a high proportion of unspecified accidental poisoning deaths. Methods. We matched toxicology data to vital records for all accidental poisoning deaths (n = 1238) in Marion County, Indiana, from January 2011 to December 2016. From vital records, we coded cases as opioid involved, specified other substance, or unspecified. We extracted toxicology data on opioid substances for unspecified cases, and we have reported corrected estimates of opioid-involved deaths after accounting for toxicology findings. Results. Over a 6-year period, 57.7% of accidental overdose deaths were unspecified and 34.2% involved opioids. Toxicology data showed that 86.8% of unspecified cases tested positive for an opioid. Inclusion of toxicology results more than doubled the proportion of opioid-involved deaths, from 34.2% to 86.0%. Conclusions. Local jurisdictions may be undercounting opioid-involved overdose deaths to a considerable degree. Toxicology data can improve accuracy in identifying opioid-involved overdose deaths. Public Health Implications. Mandatory toxicology testing and enhanced training for local coroners on standards for death certificate reporting are needed to improve the accuracy of local monitoring of opioid-involved accidental overdose deaths.
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    Understanding the healthcare experiences and needs of African immigrants in the United States: a scoping review
    (BMC, 2020-01-08) Omenka, Ogbonnaya I.; Watson, Dennis P.; Hendrie, Hugh C.; Psychiatry, School of Medicine
    Africans immigrants in the United States are the least-studied immigrant group, despite the research and policy efforts to address health disparities within immigrant communities. Although their healthcare experiences and needs are unique, they are often included in the “black” category, along with other phenotypically-similar groups. This process makes utilizing research data to make critical healthcare decisions specifically targeting African immigrants, difficult. The purpose of this Scoping Review was to examine extant information about African immigrant health in the U.S., in order to develop lines of inquiry using the identified knowledge-gaps.
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    Emergency department-based peer support for opioid use disorder: Emergent functions and forms
    (Elsevier, 2019) McGuire, Alan B.; Gilmore Powell, Kristen; Treitler, Peter C.; Wagner, Karla D.; Smith, Krysti P.; Cooperman, Nina; Robinson, Lisa; Carter, Jessica; Ray, Bradley; Watson, Dennis P.; School of Public and Environmental Affairs
    Emergency department (ED)-based peer support programs aimed at linking persons with opioid use disorder (OUD) to medication for addiction treatment and other recovery services are a promising approach to addressing the opioid crisis. This brief report draws on experiences from three states' experience with such programs funded by the SAMHSA Opioid State Targeted Repose (STR) grants. Core functions of such programs include: Integration of peer supports in EDs; Alerting peers of eligible patients and making the patient aware of peer services; and connecting patients with recovery services. Qualitative data were analyzed using a general inductive approach conducted in 3 steps in order to identify forms utilized to fulfill these functions. Peer integration differed in terms of peer's physical location and who hired and supervised peers. Peers often depend on ED staff to alert them to potential patients while people other than the peers often first introduce potential patients to programming. Programs generally schedule initial appointments for recovery services for patients, but some programs provide a range of other services aimed at supporting participation in recovery services. Future effectiveness evaluations of ED-based peer support programs for OUD should consistently report on forms used to fulfill core functions.
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    Replication of an emergency department-based recovery coaching intervention and pilot testing of pragmatic trial protocols within the context of Indiana's Opioid State Targeted Response plan
    (Elsevier, 2019) Watson, Dennis P.; Brucker, Krista; McGuire, Alan; Snow-Hill, Nyssa L.; Xu, Huiping; Cohen, Alex; Campbell, Mark; Robison, Lisa; Sightes, Emily; Buhner, Rebecca; O'Donnell, Daniel; Kline, Jeffrey A.; Psychology, School of Science
    Solving the opioid crisis requires immediate, innovative, and sustainable solutions. A number of promising strategies are being carried out by U.S. states and territories as part of their Opioid State Targeted Response (STR) plans funded through the 21st Century Cures Act, and they provide an opportunity for researchers to assess effectiveness of these interventions using pragmatic approaches. This paper describes a pilot study of Project Planned Outreach, Intervention, Naloxone, and Treatment (POINT), the intervention that served as the basis for Indiana's STR-funded, emergency department (ED)-based peer specialist expansion that was conducted in preparation for a larger, multisite pragmatic trial. Through the pilot, we identified, documented, and corrected for challenges encountered while implementing planned study protocols. Per the project's funding mechanism, the ability to move to the larger trial was determined by the achievement of 3 milestones: (1) successful replication of the intervention; (2) demonstrated ability to obtain the necessary sample size; and (3) observe a higher level of engagement in medication for addiction treatment in the POINT group compared to standard care. Overall implementation of the study protocols was successful, with only minor refinements to proposed procedures being required in light of challenges with (1) data access, (2) recruitment, and (3) identification of the expansion hospitals. All three milestones were reached. Challenges in implementing protocols and reaching milestones resulted in refinements that improved the study design overall. The subsequent trial will add to the limited but growing evidence on ED-based peer supports. Capitalizing on STR efforts to study an already scaling and promising intervention is likely to lead to faster and more sustainable results with greater generalizability than traditional, efficacy-focused clinical research.
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    The housing first technical assistance and training (HFTAT) implementation strategy: outcomes from a mixed methods study of three programs
    (Biomed Central, 2018-09-21) Watson, Dennis P.; Ahonen, Emily Q.; Shuman, Valery; Brown, Molly; Tsemberis, Sam; Huynh, Philip; Ouyang, Fangqian; Xu, Huiping; Social and Behavioral Sciences, School of Public Health
    BACKGROUND: This paper discusses the initial testing of the Housing First Training and Technical Assistance (HFTAT) Program, a multifaceted, distance-based strategy for the implementation of the Housing First (HF) supportive housing model. HF is a complex housing intervention for serving people living with serious mental illness and a substance use disorder that requires significant individual- and structural-level changes to implement. As such, the HFTAT employs a combined training and consultation approach to target different levels of the organization. Training delivered to all organizational staff focuses on building individual knowledge and uses narrative storytelling to overcome attitudinal implementation barriers. Consultation seeks to build skills through technical assistance and fidelity audit and feedback. METHOD: We employed a mixed method design to understand both individual-level (e.g., satisfaction with the HFTAT, HF knowledge acquisition and retention, and HF acceptability and appropriateness) and structural-level (e.g., fidelity) outcomes. Quantitative data were collected at various time points, and qualitative data were collected at the end of HFTAT activities. Staff and administrators (n = 113) from three programs across three states participated in the study. RESULTS: Satisfaction with both training and consultation was high, and discussions demonstrated both activities were necessary. Flexibility of training modality and narrative storytelling were particular strengths, while digital badging and the community of practice were perceived as less valuable because of incompatibilities with the work context. HF knowledge was high post training and retained after 3-month follow-up. Participants reported training helped them better understand the model. Attitudes toward evidence-based interventions improved over 6 months, with qualitative data supporting this but demonstrating some minor concerns related to acceptability and appropriateness. Fidelity scores for all programs improved over 9 months. CONCLUSION: The HFTAT was a well-liked and generally useful implementation strategy. Results support prior research pointing to the value of both (a) multifaceted strategies and (b) combined training and consultation approaches. The study also provides evidence for narrative storytelling as an approach for changing attitudinal implementation barriers. The need for compatibility between specific elements of an implementation strategy and the work environment was also observed.
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    Pain clinic definitions in the medical literature and U.S. state laws: an integrative systematic review and comparison
    (BMC, 2018-05-22) Andraka-Christou, Barbara; Rager, Joshua B.; Brown-Podgorski, Brittany; Silverman, Ross D.; Watson, Dennis P.; Social and Behavioral Sciences, School of Public Health
    BACKGROUND: In response to widespread opioid misuse, ten U.S. states have implemented regulations for facilities that primarily manage and treat chronic pain, called "pain clinics." Whether a clinic falls into a state's pain clinic definition determines the extent to which it is subject to oversight. It is unclear whether state pain clinic definitions model those found in the medical literature, and potential differences lead to discrepancies between scientific and professionally guided advice found in the medical literature and actual pain clinic practice. Identifying discrepancies could assist states to design laws that are more compatible with best practices suggested in the medical literature. METHODS: We conducted an integrative systematic review to create a taxonomy of pain clinic definitions using academic medical literature. We then identified existing U.S. state pain clinic statutes and regulations and compared the developed taxonomy using a content analysis approach to understand the extent to which medical literature definitions are reflected in state policy. RESULTS: In the medical literature, we identified eight categories of pain clinic definitions: 1) patient case mix; 2) single-modality treatment; 3) multidisciplinary treatment; 4) interdisciplinary treatment; 5) provider supervision; 6) provider composition; 7) marketing; and 8) outcome. We identified ten states with pain clinic laws. State laws primarily include the following definitional categories: patient case mix; single-modality treatment, and marketing. Some definitional categories commonly found in the medical literature, such as multidisciplinary treatment and interdisciplinary treatment, rarely appear in state law definitions. CONCLUSIONS: This is the first study to our knowledge to develop a taxonomy of pain clinic definitions and to identify differences between pain clinic definitions in U.S. state law and medical literature. Future work should explore the impact of different legal pain clinic definitions on provider decision-making and state-level health outcomes.
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    Lay responder naloxone access and Good Samaritan law compliance: postcard survey results from 20 Indiana counties
    (BioMed Central, 2018-04-06) Watson, Dennis P.; Ray, Bradley; Robison, Lisa; Huynh, Philip; Sightes, Emily; Walker, La Shea; Brucker, Krista; Duwve, Joan; Social and Behavioral Sciences, School of Public Health
    BACKGROUND: To reduce fatal drug overdoses, two approaches many states have followed is to pass laws expanding naloxone access and Good Samaritan protections for lay persons with high likelihood to respond to an opioid overdose. Most prior research has examined attitudes and knowledge among lay responders in large metropolitan areas who actively use illicit substances. The present study addresses current gaps in knowledge related to this issue through an analysis of data collected from a broader group of lay responders who received naloxone kits from 20 local health departments across Indiana. METHODS: Postcard surveys were included inside naloxone kits distributed in 20 Indiana counties, for which 217 returned cards indicated the person completing it was a lay responder. The survey captured demographic information and experiences with overdose, including the use of 911 and knowledge about Good Samaritan protections. RESULTS: Few respondents had administered naloxone before, but approximately one third had witnessed a prior overdose and the majority knew someone who had died from one. Those who knew someone who had overdosed were more likely to have obtained naloxone for someone other than themselves. Also, persons with knowledge of Good Samaritan protections or who had previously used naloxone were significantly more likely to have indicated calling 911 at the scene of a previously witnessed overdose. Primary reasons for not calling 911 included fear of the police and the person who overdosed waking up on their own. CONCLUSIONS: Knowing someone who has had a fatal or non-fatal overdose appears to be a strong motivating factor for obtaining naloxone. Clarifying and strengthening Good Samaritan protections, educating lay persons about these protections, and working to improve police interactions with the public when they are called to an overdose scene are likely to improve implementation and outcomes of naloxone distribution and opioid-related Good Samaritan laws.
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    Developing Substance Use Programming for Person-Oriented Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT): protocol for a pilot randomized controlled trial
    (BMC, 2017-12-15) Watson, Dennis P.; Ray, Bradley; Robison, Lisa; Xu, Huiping; Edwards, Rhiannon; Salyers, Michelle P.; Hill, James; Shue, Sarah; Social and Behavioral Sciences, School of Public Health
    Background There is a lack of evidence-based substance use disorder treatment and services targeting returning inmates. Substance Use Programming for Person-Oriented Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) is a community-driven, recovery-oriented approach to substance abuse care which has the potential to address this service gap. SUPPORT is modeled after Indiana’s Access to Recovery program, which was closed due to lack of federal support despite positive improvements in clients’ recovery outcomes. SUPPORT builds on noted limitations of Indiana's Access to Recovery program. The ultimate goal of this project is to establish SUPPORT as an effective and scalable recovery-oriented system of care. A necessary step we must take before launching a large clinical trial is pilot testing the SUPPORT intervention. Methods The pilot will take place at Public Advocates in Community Re-Entry (PACE), nonprofit serving individuals with felony convictions who are located in Marion County, Indiana (Indianapolis). The pilot will follow a basic parallel randomized design to compare clients receiving SUPPORT with clients receiving standard services. A total of 80 clients within 3 months of prison release will be recruited to participate and randomly assigned to one of the two intervention arms. Quantitative measures will be collected at multiple time points to understand SUPPORT’s impact on recovery capital and outcomes. We will also collect qualitative data from SUPPORT clients to better understand their program and post-discharge experiences. Discussion Successful completion of this pilot will prepare us to conduct a multi-site clinical trial. The ultimate goal of this future work is to develop an evidence-based and scalable approach to treating substance use disorder among persons returning to society after incarceration. Trial registration (Clinical Trials ID: NCT03132753 and Protocol Number: 1511731907). Registered 28 April 2017.