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NIH Opioids Conference Remarks

Eric D. Hargan
NIH Opioids Conference
December 11, 2017
Bethesda, Maryland

Better research also undergirds our understanding of how to advance pain management, how to improve and target overdose reversing drugs, and how to improve the quality and availability of prevention, treatment and recovery services.

As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Dr. [Francis] Collins, for that introduction, and for hosting us here today. Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us for this important gathering.

As the acting secretary of health and human services, it’s an honor to get to oversee, and boast about, the work NIH does all the time.

But there is a particular pride attached to the work that the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse in particular, are doing to combat America’s opioid crisis. It might well be America’s most pressing, tragic public health challenge: CDC estimates 175 Americans are dying of drug overdoses every day, many of them in the prime of their lives. President Trump has made this crisis a top priority across the administration, and that charge has been taken very seriously across our department.

In fact, the President donated his third-quarter salary this year to opioids efforts at HHS. And tomorrow, as a recognition of the urgency of the situation, we will be convening an HHS opioids cabinet, composed of principals from every Op Div. We believe this will be the first such regular gathering of its kind to address a single health issue.

Earlier this year, we unveiled a comprehensive five-point strategy to combat the epidemic:

  • Better data on the epidemic.
  • Better pain management.
  • Better targeting of overdose reversing drugs.
  • Better prevention, treatment, and recovery services.
  • And lastly, most important for this crowd, better research into pain and addiction.

Making better research one of the five points represents how important it is to this fight, but we would like to think of our support for research as even broader than just that one point. After all, CDC is always working with states to improve their public health surveillance and reporting, but getting the best insights from that data falls to researchers, including many at NIH. While we’re on data, we were pleased to welcome an NIH team this past week to HHS’s first department-level Opioid Code-a-Thon. Fifty coding teams from across the country took over the Great Hall of the Humphrey Building down in Washington for 24 hours, to come up with real insights into the epidemic.

Within three particular tracks of inquiry—usage, prevention and treatment—we selected three winners, who had come up with exceptional insights and solutions.

The NIH team, alas, wasn’t among those three—but you really have to let the guests win, you know?

Better research also undergirds our understanding of how to advance pain management, how to improve and target overdose reversing drugs, and how to improve the quality and availability of prevention, treatment and recovery services.

That’s one reason why we’ve been touting the wonderful regular gatherings NIH has been holding to advance cutting edge science in the opioid crisis, and why I was so happy to accept Dr. Collins’s kind invitation to join you here today.

Although we have a great set of tools to treat pain and addiction already, we also need better tools to win this fight.

And, in many cases, we need a better understanding of how our existing set of tools works best for patients, both in terms of treating pain and treating addiction. That is where researchers at NIH and elsewhere come in.

As just one example, a recent study in the Journal of American Medicine actually found no significant difference between the acute pain relief offered by opioid analgesics and non-opioid analgesics.

Different treatments, of course, are right for different patients, but that is a remarkable finding. Meanwhile, our understanding of the various modalities of medication-assisted treatment are constantly advancing, too: Just this past month, NIDA released a study finding that outcomes were similar for courses of addiction treatment by a buprenorphine/naloxone combination and by extended-release naltrexone.

But that, again, is not the end of the road, as we still need a better sense of which populations may be better served by one treatment or the other.

So we are still in search of answers, but we are so lucky to have this jewel of American science, the National Institutes of Health, to lead and support these inquiries alongside scientists from all across America and the world.

This is not a new role for NIH, I should note. The opioid crisis is hardly the first major public health crisis where it has been called upon, and risen to the occasion.

NIH played a crucial role in discovering the first treatments for HIV/AIDS, before the virus was even well understood, and then led the development of drug cocktails. Now, we have hundreds of different treatments available, and the virus is no longer a death sentence here in America, or in most places in the world.

When the specters of Ebola and Zika emerged, NIH, once again, rose to the occasion to aid in the rapid research and development of treatments and vaccines.

We are confident that, in this crisis, we will once again be able to turn to NIH to help understand the threat we face and to fight back.

At HHS, we like to think of our goals as falling into three categories: healthier people, stronger communities, and a safer country.

Without the kind of science being advanced here at NIH, we would not be nearly as confident as we are that we will eventually be able to turn the tide on this crisis that threatens our health, our communities and our country as a whole.

So thank you for the work you do and thank you for your continued commitment to advancing our understanding of this epidemic. We hope you all have a productive conference here today.

Content created by Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA)
Content last reviewed on December 11, 2017