Dr. Marian Wilson
Dr. Marian Wilson

Marian Wilson, an assistant professor at the WSU College of Nursing, is joining a team of scientists who’ll lead a federally funded, $2.5 million study investigating whether an online pain management program can help patients with chronic pain reduce or eliminate the amount of prescription opioids they take.

Wilson, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a co-investigator on the EMPOWER study with lead investigator Theresa Winhusen, Ph.D., director of the Addiction Sciences Division in the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. The five-year study will involve 400 non-cancer patients who are being treated for chronic pain with long-term opioid therapy at University of Cincinnati Health and Duke Health.

A web-based pain management tool, called Goalistics Chronic Pain Management Program, has been found in small previous trials to decrease patients’ pain and reduce opioid use. The EMPOWER study will expand the sample size and researchers will have access to patients’ clinical records to accurately measure opioid use.

Goalistics teaches relaxation exercises and psychological approaches to managing pain, and encourages goal-setting and physical activity – the kind of comprehensive, holistic pain-management care patients might get through a multidisciplinary pain clinic in an urban area. Wilson, who has used Goalistics in previous research, said many patients with chronic pain don’t have access to that level of care, and instead are treated by primary care providers who have had little training in pain management.

The EMPOWER study hopes to give primary care providers another tool to use in helping patients manage chronic pain, while also responding to soaring opioid addiction rates and overdose deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended decreasing the use of opioids for treating pain.

“It’s a really difficult situation telling people, ‘Sorry, you can’t have your opioids but we’re not really giving you an alternative,’” Wilson said. An online pain management program could be “a lifeline extended to patients, another tool to help manage pain. It’s something that can give them some hope and show that people understand what they’re going through.”

The research is being funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Wilson said she’ll function as the study’s pain and online-program expert, while Winhusen, the lead investigator, will oversee the clinical trial.

The study is the third announced in recent weeks involving WSU College of Nursing faculty receiving significant funding from federal agencies:

  • Assistant Professor Roschelle “Shelly” Fritz, of the College of Nursing in Vancouver, is one of three WSU scientists who landed a $1.77 million grant from NIH to research how “smart home” technology can help monitor the health and safety of senior citizens.
  • Associate Professor Janet Purath received a $1.3 million grant from the Health Resources & Services Administration to address a critical shortage of primary-care providers across Eastern Washington through nurse-practitioner training.

Both NIH awards are Research Project Grants (R01), the original grant mechanism used by the agency. R01 and R01-equivalent grants are highly competitive: NIH says that in 2016, for example, just 20 percent of such grant applications were funded, and the average size of the award was about $458,000.

Dr. Celestina Barbosa-Leiker, the College of Nursing’s interim associate dean for research, praised faculty for their success in bringing research dollars to the College of Nursing. “We’re seeing more of the College of Nursing faculty who were successful a couple years ago getting seed grants now writing larger and larger grants,” she said. She also called called the EMPOWER research “a critical study” because of the issue of opioid addiction in the country.

Wilson credited colleagues with valuable help on her work in addiction science, including Drs. John Roll and Matt Layton of the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine; Barbosa-Leiker; College of Nursing doctoral students Mary Lee Roberts and Teresa Bigand, and Dr. Michele Shaw, associate professor at the College of Nursing.

Said Wilson, “I think we were fortunate that we had the right topic for the times. The nation is focused on the pain and opioid addiction issue.”