Education project to help improve data on drug overdose deaths

Medical examiner adding data on a laptop

The Death Certifier Education Project aims to address issues that can occur with the death reporting process that can place communities and residents at risk from misinformation.

Credit: Daniel Sone/Unsplash

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new Penn State-led project is educating coroners, medical examiners, and others in the death-certifier community in Pennsylvania about the reporting of substances associated with accidental overdose.

The project, known as the Death Certifier Education Project, is a collaborative effort with the Pennsylvania Department of Health. It aims to address issues that can occur with the death reporting process that can place communities and residents at risk from misinformation.

“Timely, accurate death information ensures that local, state and federal responses to public health and criminal justice issues are effective, efficient and appropriately geographically targeted,” said Glenn Sterner, assistant professor of criminal justice, a faculty affiliate of the Criminal Justice Research Center, and a founding member of the Consortium on Substance Use and Addiction, who is also the principal investigator for the project.

According to Sterner, these statistics have become a vital tool for understanding drug related deaths in addressing the opioid epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic in Pennsylvania and beyond. Sterner came to understand the importance of accurate overdose statistics after a project with the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office and connecting with the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH).

“We developed a multidisciplinary team across multiple Penn State campuses and an external partner, the National Nurse-Led Care Consortium (NNCC), to ensure a holistic approach to positively impact of the needs of the death-certifier community,” Sterner said.

According to the Pennsylvania State Board of Nursing, the nurse practitioner workforce in Pennsylvania grew by a total of 22% in 2020. “While our project focuses on building competencies across all death certifiers, engaging NNCC ensures we recognize the growing role of NPs in health care delivery in Pennsylvania,” said Kristine Gonnella of the National Nurse-Led Care Consortium.

The project team conducted an assessment of needs associated with the death-certifier community in Pennsylvania to ensure training modules will be targeted accordingly.

They also developed five online, webinar-based trainings to be permanently hosted on TRAIN PA, the Pennsylvania Public Health Learning Management System. They were spearheaded by NNCC in conjunction with the rest of the project team to meet the five topical areas set out by the DOH.

To supplement webinar-based trainings, the team also developed a Project ECHO series that covered multiple needed topics and created a learning community with participating death certifiers. The cohort concluded this series in August.

Project ECHO is a telehealth platform, utilizing case-based, collaborative learning to support discussion of learners’ challenges and barriers to guideline implementation, enhancing education and supporting changes in practice.

“Our experts facilitate discussion of real-life scenarios that the death certifiers bring to the table. This collaborative and peer to peer sharing of knowledge and experience supports greater understanding of the topics examined and the real-world challenges death certifiers in PA,” said Jessica Beiler, project manager at Project ECHO.

Additionally, the team will host in-person, one-day trainings at various Penn State campuses, in collaboration with NNCC and Penn State, over the course of the next year.

“As the overdose epidemic continues to be a top priority for the Wolf Administration, the PA Department of Health recognizes the important role coroners, medical examiners and death certifiers play in the ability to monitor and address the epidemic in Pennsylvania,” said Deputy Secretary for Health Resources and Services Jared Shinabery said.

“By offering new educational resources, we hope to aid the coroner, medical examiner and death-certifier community in their critical work and to continue to improve reporting of accidental and undetermined overdoses. We are especially grateful to Penn State and NNCC for bringing this project to fruition, despite the additional challenges of COVID-19.”

Other researchers on the project include Elaine Arsenault, a research associate at the Criminal Justice Research Center; Yunfeng Shi, associate professor of health policy and administration; Jennifer Kraschnewski, Project ECHO director; Erica Francis, Project Manager at Project ECHO; Emily Kane and Kristine Gonnella with  NNCC; and Kelly Wolgast, assistant dean for outreach and professional development in the College of Nursing. The team also engaged two undergraduate research assistants to promote high impact learning for students at the institution.

The DOH provided funding for this project. Penn State’s Criminal Justice Research Center and the Social Science Research Institute provided pilot funding that led to this project.