New study to explore impact of remote legal intervention on substance use disorder treatment outcomes

March 28, 2023

Contact: Jon Meerdink ([email protected])

ANN ARBOR — A two-year randomized control trial will explore whether online legal interventions can lead to better long-term outcomes for people suffering from substance use disorders.

Meghan O’Neil, a research scholar at the Institute for Social Research’s Population Studies Center, will serve as the study’s primary investigator. Her team released their study protocol earlier this month via BMC Public Health, outlining their plans and goals for the research. 

“We are testing the efficacy of an intervention in opioid treatment centers that we hypothesize will improve public health outcomes as well as social science outcomes,” she said. “We’re hoping to better understand if providing online dispute resolution  in treatment centers actually improves public health and social outcomes.”

 The intervention leverages a no-cost online portal that connects litigants directly with courts and does not require users to have a lawyer, which may be especially helpful for litigants with limited access to financial resources. O’Neil and her team hypothesize that by resolving legal issues on behalf of people suffering from substance abuse issues, including opioid addiction, while they’re seeking treatment, those patients will be better prepared to re-enter mainstream society. A positive legal intervention could give the people in the study better access to jobs, apartments, and other social supports, which in turn could have further benefits.

“We know that people are less likely to be involved with narcotics when they are housed and when they’re employed,” O’Neil said.

The research team took the increasingly popular step of releasing their study protocol now in hopes of sparking additional studies elsewhere. This survey will focus on southeastern Michigan but the framework could be replicated across the country, which could have multiple benefits.

“If we’re looking to engage in this sort of federally funded research on a scale that’s going to be able to be replicated, I think things like protocol manuscripts are extremely valuable and we’ll become more and more important,” she said. “It also speeds up the timeline of how quickly you can get the research out. While we’re waiting on patient enrollment here, someone could have already attempted to engage in this study in Boston, for example.”

The study was funded in part by two INNOVATE awards, received following a public service pitch campaign when O’Neil was a visiting U-M PhD student in 2018 and later funded in part by MCubed, an internal fund at the University of Michigan designed to foster interdisciplinary research. The two-year enrollment period will involve up to 800 Medicare-eligible and uninsured adults receiving treatment for substance use disorders in community-based non-profit health care clinics in southeast Michigan.

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