Nabila El-Bassel: Slowness of Death Certifications Hampers Opioid Battle

May 20 @ 12:14 pm

Photograph of Nabila El-Bassel in dark blazer with cuffs turned up and wearing a square pendant around her neck

Death certifications in New York State must be handled more promptly and efficiently, says Columbia University Professor Nabila El-Bassel, in order for communities to fully grapple with and reduce deaths related to opioid overdose.

Dr. El-Bassel, Willma and Albert Musher Professor of Social Work and director of the Social Intervention Group, is the principal investigator of the New York State HEALing Communities Study. This major study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse,  aims to reduce opioid overdose-related deaths by 40 percent in 8 counties over a three-year period.

Delays in officially documenting the cause of a death through toxicology testing and death certification hamper progress at both  the government level and the level of community interventions, frustrating efforts such as the HEALing Communities Study that are truly a race against time.  

Says Dr. El-Bassel, “The delays in information sharing play out in policy makers’ decisions. Delivering timely services, linking people to treatment, and saving lives are affected by these delays. At present, we are losing more people to overdose! It is time to act to improve the timeliness of toxicology testing and death certification.”

Her frustration is shared by Dr. Kitty Gelberg, a colleague in the study who published a recent Opinion piece in the Albany Times-Union. Gelberg is an epidemiologist and public health consultant skilled in opioid poisoning prevention.  

Timely data on drug overdose deaths…can help communities pinpoint where deaths are occurring and the specific drugs causing the deaths, which aids in evaluating specific actions communities might take,” Gelberg explains.

As laid out in the Opinion, the HEALing Communities team recommends a systematic review of certification delays, centralized data collection for death investigations, better training for coroners and medical examiners, and the sharing of data with local health departments and community stakeholders. Read the full Opinion piece here.

Three other states—Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Ohio—are also participating in the HEALing Communities study, for a total of 67 communities.