$2.8M grant expands addiction care, adds more nurse practitioners to rural Alabama

The grant will train nurse practitioners on how to prevent, identify and treat opioid addictions. 
Written by: Erica Techo
Media contact: Holly Gainer

Ashley2Ashley Hodges, Ph.D., associate dean for Graduate Clinical ProgramsResearch shows that individuals with substance use disorders frequently seek care in primary care settings. Through a four-year, $2.8 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing is advancing nurse practitioner education in primary care. The goal is to expand future NPs’ knowledge of how to screen, treat and refer patients who are dealing with substance abuse issues.

The grant is specifically tailored to serve people in rural and underserved communities as they are some of the people who are most affected by the opioid epidemic. They often lack the health care and other resources to address addiction, but have some of the highest rates of abuse.

“This project is funded through an Advance Nursing Education Workforce grant and will create a sustainable pipeline of practice-ready primary care nurse practitioners with advanced training in opioid use disorder prevention, identification and treatment,” said Ashley Hodges, Ph.D., associate dean for Graduate Clinical Programs. “We will prepare 16 primary care nurse practitioners per year, drawing from the family nurse practitioner, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and adult-gerontology nurse practitioner specialties, who have a desire or intent to work in rural or underserved communities, where access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment is limited.”

To date, most primary care nurse practitioners are trained to ask patients about illegal substance use and prescription drug misuse. Advanced training, however, is usually left to substance abuse and mental health professionals, Hodges says.

“With this grant, we are moving that advanced training to primary care because that is where most patients with behavioral health or substance use issues are seen,” she said. “Through this project, students will learn about multiple screening tools, referral options and treatment. This will include medication assisted treatment so that, once they are in the practice setting, they will be able to provide better quality care to the patients they serve.”

Students will expand their knowledge of substance use disorders through additional clinical hours, monthly webinars, and legislative and leadership-centered workdays. They will complete the bulk of their clinical hours serving rural and underserved communities, including clinical training at one of three expanded and new clinical partner sites.

The grant provides funding to enhance two of the school’s academic-practice partnerships with Beacon Recovery and Alethia House, and supports a newly established relationship with East Central Mental Health Center. These clinical partners, whose clinics focus on substance abuse treatment, will give students the clinical experiences and training necessary to expand their skillsets related to substance use and prescription drug misuse. 

The school is also is working with Tuskegee University School of Nursing to identify and recruit current or former students who want to become nurse practitioners to the UAB School of Nursing Masters of Science in Nursing program. The schools also are collaborating to identify training gaps related to rural and underserved populations and necessary steps to better prepare students to provide care in rural Alabama.

“This grant gives us yet another opportunity to partner with the Tuskegee University School of Nursing to address the health care needs of individuals in underserved rural areas and improve the health outcomes of Alabamians,” said Maria Shirey, Ph.D., associate dean for Clinical and Global Partnerships.

Hodges adds that, because many rural Alabama communities do not have access to primary health care, the nurse practitioners who are trained through the grant will be filling more than one need in Alabama’s rural communities.

“This grant ensures that nurse practitioners who desire to return to rural and underserved communities have advanced, targeted training and the tools to recognize and treat mental health and substance use issues,” Hodges said. “These NPs can meet the needs of Alabama’s underserved communities and eliminate one of the most significant barriers we face in impacting the opioid epidemic, as well as so many other of the state’s pressing and growing health care issues — a lack of access to qualified primary care providers.”