Opioid policy workgroup opens pathway to research for pharmacy students

Three faculty members in the department of pharmaceutical outcomes and policy, Scott Vouri, Pharm.D., Ph.D., Juan Hincapie-Castillo, Pharm.D., Ph.D., and Amie Goodin, Ph.D., combined their expertise and passion for mentoring trainees and students to create an opioid policy workgroup in March 2019. The small research team began conducting a policy evaluation of a Florida opioid prescription supply law and invited interested students to join their efforts.

Since its inception, the workgroup has expanded to include 22 Pharm.D. students, three graduate students, two postdoctoral fellows and two research interns. The group has initiated 17 collaborative projects and meets every two weeks. In addition to ongoing research projects, the workgroup fosters discussion of the current state of opioid policies, holds pharmacy student and trainee-led journal club sessions and provides research and analysis training opportunities and workshops to pharmacy students and other trainees. The workgroup continued its meetings virtually during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Opioid Policy Workgroup
Members of the opioid policy workgroup. Not pictured are: Ashmita Jadubans; Maryam Deravi; Jerry Staret; Russell Ellison-Ryan and Kristen Martinez

The workgroup’s first success came as an evaluation of Florida’s HB21 Opioid Restriction Policy on opioid utilization was published in JAMA Network Open.

“It all began when I was asked by the Chief Medical Officer of UF Health Physicians to conduct an evaluation of the (HB21) policy in our patient population” said Vouri, a clinical assistant professor of pharmaceutical outcomes and policy. “I didn’t have the skillset to conduct the analysis on my own so I reached out to Juan and Amie for their input.”

After this successful project, the trio decided to continue their collaboration and extend opportunities to Pharm.D. students. “I found that PharmD students completing the principles of evidence-based practice class after their first year expressed a lot of interest in research, but they lacked important skills and mentorship,” said Hincapie-Castillo, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical outcomes and policy.

The next projects were a systematic review evaluating the impacts of hydrocodone rescheduling led by Vouri, and a scoping review of the changing definitions of chronic opioid therapy led by Goodin, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical outcomes and policy.

The hydrocodone project recently published in the Journal of the American Pharmacist Association, as extracting a variety of outcomes from differing data sources made extraction very difficult.

“We had to take the time to look at the written material — as opposed to tables — from several angles, in order to find where these studies’ characteristics and outcomes partially overlapped,” said Silken Usmani, Pharm.D., an assistant scientist, former fellow and first author on the project.

It also served as an immersive research experience to many Pharm.D. students. “My involvement in research has dramatically enriched my Pharm.D. experience,” said Hemita Bhagwandass, a third-year student and co-author on the project. “It allowed me to collaborate with professors and peers on research projects and provided me with a better understanding of the importance and purpose of research, which gave me confidence to pursue my own research project.”

The scoping review, published in the Journal of Pain, was an extensive undertaking. It required the review of over 9,000 articles and exhaustive data extraction. The ambitious project revealed the evolving ways in which chronic opioid therapy have been defined by clinicians and scientists and paved the way for standardization of these definitions as applied within research. The team worked with the UF Health Sciences Center Libraries Pharmacy Liaison Librarian, Lauren Adkins, MLIS, to develop the search strategy. Due to the extensive scope, 11 Pharm.D. students, one graduate student, and two other trainees dedicated countless hours.

“The faculty of the working group taught me technical skills like how to use a citation tracking tool, and provided me with an opportunity to take a leadership role within the project, as I led the effort on data collection using this tool,” said Tychell Branchcomb, a third-year Pharm.D. student and co-author on the project. “The project, along with several other projects I am working on as part of this group, has made me more comfortable with research and excited to continue to develop new skills.”

Beyond the collaborative works, many students and trainees have recently embarked on leading their own projects with early successes. An evaluation of adjuvant medication use patterns following an opioid supply restriction policy by Ph.D. student Yun Shen was recently recognized as a Top Abstract at the Addiction Health Services Research Conference. Additionally, Pharm.D. student Razanne Oueini, was awarded the Gateway Research Award from the American Foundation in Pharmaceutical Education for her work on “Characterization of the concurrent prescribing of non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, opioids, and CNS-depressing medications.” The research was presented as an abstract at the American College of Clinical Pharmacy Annual Conference.

“We are very happy to provide these experiences to Pharm.D. students, as most are working in a collaborative research program for this first time,” Vouri said. “We hope these experiences will expand their career and training opportunities after completing their pharmacy degree.”

Finally, the workgroup hopes their research collaboration will serve as example of how academic researchers can benefit from the help of students and how students can benefit from working with researchers.

“Researchers in schools of pharmacy can benefit from collaborating and leveraging on the talent of enthusiastic Pharm.D. students. As the job market becomes more challenging for graduates, data science and research skills are attractive qualities in applicants. It truly is a win-win for faculty and students,” Hincapie-Castillo said.

“Our team recently shared the pharmacy student and trainee-workgroup model at the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy Annual Meeting, and we hope that other colleges of pharmacy will endeavor to develop similar opportunities for student participation and leadership in research,” Goodin said.