School of Medicine Professors Receive $200,000 Federal Grant to Combat Opioid Overdose in Rural North Georgia

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Center for Rural Health

MACON – Mercer University School of Medicine (MUSM) professors Dr. Bryant Smalley and Dr. Jacob Warren have received a $200,000 grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration to create a comprehensive plan to combat opioid overdose in a four-county region of rural north Georgia.

The grant will establish the North Georgia Opioid Prevention and Education Network (North Georgia OPEN), a multi-sector consortium focused on the prevention of opioid use disorder and opioid overdose in Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon and Polk counties. Each of these counties has an opioid overdose mortality rate above the state average, with some counties more than double the state average.

Coordinated by MUSM’s Center for Rural Health and Health Disparities (CRHHD), the eight-member consortium includes the CRHHD, Highland Rivers Health, the Appalachian Circuit Drug Court, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the Gordon County Emergency Management Agency, Huff’s Drug Store, North Georgia WorkSource and Mountain Education Charter High School.

“This federal grant will help combat the opioid epidemic in our North Georgia region with a plan designed for and by our community,” said Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), whose state House district includes Fannin and Gilmer counties. “I applaud the MUSM Center for Rural Health and Health Disparities and all of the local agencies and organizations participating in the consortium for working together on this critical public health issue.”

The yearlong planning process will be led by Dr. Smalley, associate dean for research in the School of Medicine, and Dr. Warren, Rufus Harris Endowed Chair and director of the Center for Rural Health and Health Disparities, a National Institutes of Health Center of Excellence within the School of Medicine.

“The opioid crisis is a nationwide issue, but North Georgia in particular has been hard hit,” said Dr. Smalley. “Being able to work with all of these partners, from the local pharmacy to the judicial system, allows North Georgia OPEN to be responsive to this particular region’s unique needs and resources.”

During the planning year, the consortium will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the service area’s strengths and needs, conduct a community-engaged strategic planning process, develop a plan to strengthen the opioid response workforce and implement a comprehensive community awareness campaign focused on opioid use and overdose.

Following the planning year, the consortium will compete for companion funds available to support implementation of the developed plan.

“Community involvement is critical in planning an effective and sustainable response,” said Dr. Warren.  “These funds will allow us to create a community-driven plan to address opioid use and overdose in the region.”

Dr. Smalley and Dr. Warren have worked extensively with communities to develop, implement and research the impact of rural health initiatives, including work to eliminate maternal and infant mortality disparities through South Georgia Healthy Start. With the addition of North Georgia OPEN, the Center for Rural Health and Health Disparities now has active initiatives in 12 rural Georgia counties.

“Mercer University School of Medicine is committed to its mission to improve rural health in the state,” said Dr. Jean Sumner, dean of MUSM. “Opioid abuse prevention and effective treatment is an undeniable need in rural Georgia. We are honored to have the opportunity to partner with the community in these four counties.”

This project (G25RH32936) is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of an award totaling $200,000 with 0 percent financed with non-governmental sources. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by HRSA, HHS or the U.S. Government.

About Mercer University School of Medicine (Macon, Savannah and Columbus)

Mercer University’s School of Medicine was established in 1982 to educate physicians and health professionals to meet the primary care and health care needs of rural and medically underserved areas of Georgia. Today, more than 60 percent of graduates currently practice in the state of Georgia, and of those, more than 80 percent are practicing in rural or medically underserved areas of Georgia. Mercer medical students benefit from a problem-based medical education program that provides early patient care experiences. Such an academic environment fosters the early development of clinical problem-solving and instills in each student an awareness of the place of the basic medical sciences in medical practice. The School opened a full four-year campus in Savannah in 2008 at Memorial University Medical Center. In 2012, the School began offering clinical education for third- and fourth-year medical students in Columbus. Following their second year, students participate in core clinical clerkships at the School’s primary teaching hospitals: Medical Center, Navicent Health in Macon; Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah; and The Medical Center and St. Francis Hospital in Columbus. The School also offers master’s degrees in family therapy, preclinical sciences and biomedical sciences and a Ph.D. in rural health sciences.

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Kyle Sears