- Need: To reduce overdose-related deaths among prescription opioid users in rural Wilkes County, North Carolina
- Intervention: Education and tools are provided for prescribers, patients and community members to lessen drug supply and demand, and to reduce harm in prescription opioid use
- Results: Opioid overdose death rates have decreased in Wilkes County
Effective (About evidence-level criteria)
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Wilkes County is in the heart of a culture that lives in close-knit community that commonly shares their traditions and personal belongings, including self-medication practices and prescription drugs. This, among other reasons, has opened the door for substance abuse of opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl and methadone.
In 2007, Wilkes County experienced an average of 28.3 deaths per 100,000 people from unintentional drug poisoning. In 2009, the county’s rates rose to be four times higher than other North Carolina counties (46.6 vs. 11.0 per 100,000 population). Deaths were mainly due to overdoses of opioids, pain relief medications that are used for both medical and recreational purposes.
The Wilkes County Health Department, along with other local organizations, responded to this problem by starting an opioid overdose prevention program called Project Lazarus. Though it began in North Carolina, it has since spread to 24 states as well as other military and tribal groups.
Project Lazarus empowers communities and individuals to do the following:
- Prevent prescription medication overdoses
- Present responsible pain management practices
- Promote substance abuse treatment and support services
Partners of Project Lazarus include Community Care of North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Mountain Area Health Education Center, the Governor’s Institute on Substance Abuse, the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center, the NC Division of Public Health Injury Section, and the U.S. Army. General community partners have included law enforcement, schools, hospitals, faith based organizations, human service agencies, behavioral and public health organizations, and substance abuse treatment facilities.
Project Lazarus is supported by a number of sponsors and grant funds and individuals, including the Kate B. Reynolds Trust, the NC Office of Rural Health, Vaya Health, Purdue Pharma L.P., Kaléo, Zogenix, Inc., Ameritox, and the CMS Health Care Innovation Award: North Carolina Mountain Area Health Education Center.
Project Lazarus connects communities to national and state resources, and assists with customizing prevention programs at the local level. Their program includes the following types of activities:
- In-person trainings and continuing medical education for prescribers
- Toolkits that offer guidance to providers in the primary care, emergency, and care management settings; as well as provides information on community coalition building
- Treatment and recovery resources and assistance on local levels
- Harm reduction through access to naloxone, an antidote for opioid and heroin overdose
- Educating and mentoring youth at school and community events
- Resources for patients and families
- Training and technical assistance to community groups, coalitions, and clinicians
Lazarus Recovery Services is a program of Project Lazarus that provides North Carolina Certified Peer Specialists to lead recovery support efforts.
Since Project Lazarus began the program in Wilkes County:
- The rate of overdose-related deaths has been reduced
- A greater percentage of prescribing physicians have utilized pain agreements and a prescription monitoring program
- There has been a 26% reduction in emergency department visits related to substance use/abuse within North Carolina counties that have implemented and embedded the Project Lazarus model
- Unintentional overdose deaths in Wilkes County have decreased by 69% from 2009-2011 and are continuing their downward trajectory
Awards and recognitions:
Project Lazarus has received an endorsement from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy as well as recognition through multiple awards.
In 2012, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader Award was given to Project Lazarus Founder Fred Wells Brason II.
In 2015, the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health awarded the Project Bald Eagle of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania the 2015 Rural Health Program of the Year award. Project Bald Eagle is a replication of Project Lazarus.
Research and publications relating to Project Lazarus:
Albert, S., Brason II, F., Dasgupta, N., & Sanford, C. (2010). Opioid drug overdoses: a prescription for harm and potential for prevention. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 4(1), 32-37. Article Abstract.
Albert S, Brason FW II, Sanford CK, Dasgupta N, & Graham J, Lovette B. (2011) Project Lazarus: community-based overdose prevention in rural North Carolina. Pain Medicine. Article abstract.
Brason II, F., Roe, C., & Dasgupta, N. (2013). Project Lazarus: an innovative community response to prescription drug overdose. North Carolina Medical Journal, 74(3), 259-261. Free full-text.
Addiction in America: How North Carolina is Fighting Opioid Addiction, newscast featuring Project Lazarus, produced by WRC-TV of Washington DC.
Lessons learned from a grassroots collaboration focused on overdose prevention, Practical Playbook Success Story, posted in 2016.
Project Lazarus: Case Study, Wilkes County, NC, Harm Reduction Coalition. This posting is based on the 2011 Project Lazarus: community-based overdose prevention in rural North Carolina article published in Pain Medicine.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2012). Chaplain Leads Initiative to Tackle Prescription Drug Abuse. Full report.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS),
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, and the
Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy (OHAIDP)
by Altarum Institute. (2013). Hepatitis C Virus
Infection in Young Persons Who Inject Drugs.
- Social determinants to addiction, including unemployment rates, poverty, trauma, and depression
- Funding/community personnel
- Lack of public transportation in rural areas
- Patient access to providers and treatment for pain and addictions
- Depending on location, state-by-state laws may impact protections and access to naloxone.
Project Lazarus operates through the following organizational structure designed to be replicated in any community:
- The steering committee is the group of liaisons that sustains the ongoing work of Project Lazarus.
- Stakeholders are the decision makers from key sectors that assign resources, personnel, and finances to the project.
- The coalition is formed by stakeholders who designate a variety of people from each sector to be involved in Project Lazarus.
- The community is the aim of the project’s educational and serving efforts.
Project Lazarus outlines activities through training and technical assistance that are made to be replicated in other communities.
The Project Lazarus Model, a more specific form of their public health model, has 3 core components (the hub) that must always be present, and seven methods (the spokes) which are adapted based on the speciﬁc needs of a community.
View more at Lessons Learned from Implementing Project Lazarus in North Carolina, a white paper based on webinars which summarizes key principles learned from implementing Project Lazarus.
Pharmacy and prescription drugs
Prescription drug abuse
National/Multi-State, North Carolina
December 11, 2015
Please contact the models and innovations contact directly for the most complete and current information about this program. Summaries of models and innovations are provided by RHIhub for your convenience. The programs described are not endorsed by RHIhub or by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. Each rural community should consider whether a particular project or approach is a good match for their community’s needs and capacity. While it is sometimes possible to adapt program components to match your resources, keep in mind that changes to the program design may impact results.