Columbia Health’s innovation, impact, and influence in opioid overdose education and training

Columbia Health
July 17, 2023
Naloxone kit on ledge overlooking South Lawn on the Morningside campus

The opioid epidemic has ravaged cities across the U.S., New York City among them. Through a growing recognition and concern for preventable opioid-related deaths, Columbia Health partnered with the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and the Columbia School of General Studies to develop a training that would teach community members how to recognize the signs of opioid overdose and how to administer the lifesaving medication, naloxone.

The program was initially rolled out in August 2019 to students, faculty, and staff at the Morningside campus and then later to the Manhattanville and CUIMC campuses, Barnard, Teachers College, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Union Theological Seminary along with expanded eligibility to alumni community members. Columbia Health also offers a “train the trainer” program to ensure more Columbia community members that can deliver the life-saving training across all campuses.

Innovative approaches

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Columbia Health continued to recognize the importance of maintaining the offerings of the naloxone training to the Columbia community. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders during unparalleled times could potentially lead to increases in substance use, particularly using alone – a huge risk factor that could lead to overdose. After seeking New York City and State Departments of Health permission, Columbia Health became the first Registered Opioid Overdose Prevention Program to be offered virtually.

This ongoing effort was most recently recognized by the American College Health Association, the preeminent membership organization of higher education institutions in the country, which honor Columbia Health with the 2023 ACHA Best Practices in College Health Award in the Health Education and Promotion Services category.

Affiliate with naloxone kit in backpack standing at 116th St. subway station.

A broad impact

Being one of the few institutions in the nation to have designed and implemented a comprehensive naloxone training program geared towards the entire campus community, Columbia’s program model leverages the power of individually trained community members to maximize impact. Given the smaller physical campus size but highly mobile population, students and staff move beyond the borders of the University and New York City on a daily basis, allowing naloxone to be available within the campus gates and beyond. 

To date, the program has trained over 3,000 members of the Columbia community in 169 sessions and 15 lives have been reported saved.  All of the reported lives saved have been non-affiliates in off-campus locations aided by a Columbia community member—a testament to the Columbia Health model that rests on the idea that with the right training and tools, anyone can save a life anywhere.

Influencing the field of college health and beyond

Columbia expanded our program efforts to help other colleges and universities develop, implement, and evaluate similar programs to meet the needs of their respective communities. This includes direct training, presentations, providing materials, helping identify resources, and providing on-going technical assistance.

We have also worked with our partners to share our lessons learned. Published in the journal Implementation Science Communications, the article “Application of the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research to inform understanding of barriers and facilitators to the implementation of opioid and naloxone training on college campuses,” provided insight into potential barriers to college campuses fulfilling their full potential as hubs of public health education and training.

Columbia Health leaders also shared their expertise in the media. In light of the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of naloxone as an over-the-counter medication, Dr. Michael McNeil  and Dr. Melanie Bernitz  published “Over-the-counter Narcan will save lives — once we know how to use it” on The Hill and “Effective opioid overdose prevention needs more than over-the-counter access” on the Columbia Spectator.

The dramatic rise of availability and use of opioids, particularly synthetic opioids, is a critical public health concern. The opioid epidemic has been called the “most consequential preventable public health problem in the United States.” Columbia Health continues to offer its opioid education and naloxone training program both virtually and in-person to ensure accessibility, accommodate the needs of all community members, and ensure that Columbia community members are doing their part to address this epidemic and save lives.