UConn Researchers Study Whether Reliable Public Transit Improves Substance-Use Treatment

UConn researchers are studying whether access to reliable public transportation can improve the efficacy of substance abuse treatment. (Getty Images)

Can a robust, mass-transportation system enhance treatment outcomes for people in recovery for substance use disorder while also reducing the cost of providing care?

That’s the question that Jeffrey Cohen, a finance and real estate professor in the School of Business, and Carla Rash, an assistant professor of medicine at UConn Health, hope to answer. They recently received a $500,000 grant from Systems for Action, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to further their investigation.

“I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time,’’ says Cohen, who often studies transportation, and the project’s principal investigator. “This is a unique opportunity to study how public transportation and public health can serve as allies to help people in recovery for substance use disorder continue their progress.’’

“This project is an exciting blend of perspectives that brings new voices to the substance-use disorder treatment world,’’ says Rash, the study’s co-principal investigator, who specializes in addiction. 

“Dr. Cohen is applying his financial and real-estate background to address long-standing barriers to accessing and staying in treatment,’’ she says. “Outcomes from the project have the potential to lead to greater system alignment and to reduce substance use disorder-related health inequities.’’

Multiple State Organizations Will Collaborate on Research

The study will examine how a transit system can enhance substance abuse treatment outcomes and reduce provider-level treatment costs for substance abuse amidst the opioid crisis in Connecticut.

Increasing access and retention in treatment services is critical to improving health outcomes and reducing substance-abuse overdose deaths, the two faculty members said in their grant application. The research project will test how treatment costs differ before and after the addition of a new transit line or a change in transit service schedules.

One of the goals of the project is to leverage relationships with state transit officials and public health agencies to implement a systems-alignment plan that sustains transit lines and schedules that pass closer to treatment providers, offer transit spurs to treatment providers, and/or encourage treatment providers to relocate closer to existing transit routes.

The research, which will span three years, will test how treatment costs differ before and after transportation services and schedules are implemented. The professors are particularly interested in the impact of improved access, reduction in the number of missed appointments, and provider efficiency.

The research team will work with treatment providers as well as the Connecticut Departments of Public Health, Mental Health and Addiction Services and Transportation. Health care economics professor Shane Murphy and a research assistant from UConn Health will round out the team.

Systems for Action is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that aims to discover and apply new evidence about ways of aligning the delivery and financing systems that support a “culture of health.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s mission is to improve the health and health care of all Americans, and it is the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health.

Cohen says he is pleased that he and Rash received the prestigious and competitive grant.

“I’m hopeful it will get people thinking about new solutions to existing problems that could improve people’s lives,’’ Cohen says.