More than 65 members of the Yale and greater New Haven communities gathered at New Haven Free Public Library on Wednesday night to discuss innovative solutions to Connecticut’s opioid epidemic.

The event, entitled “Pitch and Solve Night,” drew Yale undergraduate and graduate students, local New Haven residents, clinicians, public health professionals and nonprofit leaders. Jointly organized by InnovateHealth Yale and Dwight Hall, the event featured three guest speakers from the School of Medicine and School of Public Health who presented five current challenges in opioid addiction treatment for attendees to tackle.

“This event allows people who study opioid addiction and people who suffer from opioid addiction to be in the same place to think critically about what they’re doing,” said Onyeka Obiocha, the director of innovation at Dwight Hall.

This year’s event was the second iteration of the organization’s annual “Pitch and Solve Night.” Last year’s event focused on health disparities, according to InnovateHealth senior fellow Alice Conant. She said the organization decided to center this year’s “Pitch and Solve Night” on the opioid epidemic after School of Medicine professor Frederick Altice reached out to InnovateHealth hoping to develop innovative solutions to solve some of the major challenges of the opioid epidemic, including improved access to syringe-exchange programs.

“Last year’s event blew my expectations out of the water,” Conant said. “We thought that this year, we could also bring new ideas to the addiction medicine field and use the larger community to generate ideas that can eventually be carried out to real-world applications.”

The night began with a dinner and time for networking, followed by presentations by the three featured clinicians and researchers. After introductions by Conant and InnovateHealth Director Martin Klein, psychiatry professor Bachaar Arnaout, clinical psychologist Lauretta Grau and Altice explained their efforts to combat the opioid crisis through policy initiatives and described the challenges attendees would address later in the evening. These issues included access to syringe exchanges and medications for substance use disorder, as well as the lack of information surrounding fentanyl and the societal stigma of addiction treatments.

Next, the attendees worked together in groups, selecting the specific challenges they wanted to address through a specific mock-policy proposal. Writing their plans on Post-It notes and large sheets of paper, attendees bounced ideas off each other while sharing their own stories about the epidemic. Several described personal experiences with opioid addiction to their groups — all of which contained a mix of Yale students and New Haven residents.

“I’m glad to see this much enthusiasm and response from a wide variety of people tonight,” said Mark Jenkins, the director of a harm reduction coalition in Hartford. “We can’t keep this thing silent.”

After an hour of brainstorming, the groups each presented solutions. Several groups imagined an app containing a database of New Haven health providers that would also track a health service “caravan” traveling around the city and providing needle disposals and fentanyl test strips to residents.

Others developed solutions ranging from an emergency hotline for information about addiction treatment to public health campaigns that would partner with companies like Facebook and Lyft. One group performed a skit, whose protagonist was played by Dean of the School of Public Health Sten Vermund, to advocate for greater prescription of Narcan, a medication commonly used to reverse opioid overdoses.

New Haven activist Beatrice Codianni, whose “Pitch and Solve” group proposed a campaign to destigmatize opioid addiction, emphasized the importance of fighting prejudice and promoting education to address the opioid epidemic. Many people are mistreated and disrespected when they enter emergency rooms, she explained, causing them to resist seeking hospital treatment.

“This is a huge public health issue that we need [to] educate people, including those in the medical and academic community, about,” Codianni said. She added that certain ideas presented at the event, such as the mobile apps, may not reach poorer populations — which often need help the most — but noted that these community events do serve to broaden perspectives.

Connecticut is projected to have over 1,000 fatal drug overdoses in 2017, according to the state’s chief medical examiner.

Amy Xiong |