Lee Hoffer using grant to assist Ohio’s Syringe Exchange Program

Since 2017, Lee Hoffer, an associate professor of anthropology and director of graduate programs, has been working with Syringe Services Programs (SSPs) in Ohio to help reduce the harms associated with illegal drug use and collect standardized data on their services. These community-based programs promote public health by providing clean syringes, safe disposal containers to users, and offering access to various health services. Currently, Hoffer and his research team is working with approximately 22 SSPs under a contract with the Ohio Department of Health (ODH).

“Doing research with people committing illegal acts can be stigmatizing, but harm reduction is focused on respecting the agency of those who come to the SSPs,” he explains. “In reality, a lot of people who use illegal drugs aren’t ready for treatment and may not engage in health services, and this is a way to help them without forcing them to change.”

Measuring SSP and user data

Ohio SSPs can vary in how they are organized, and how they measure the services they provide. They also have different levels of capacity for data collection.

“Our aim in this project is for the SSPs to collect the same metrics regarding the supplies and services being distributed, as well as who is receiving this aid. Since programs each provide services a little differently, getting them all on the same page and using the same system will allow a more clear picture of what is happening across the state,” he said. 

Program draws support from the state

With his graduate student research team, Hoffer developed the software system to collect, manage, and report standardized SSP data. Initially, starting with SSPs in Cleveland and Portsmouth, OH, his system has since been adopted by organizations in numerous other counties. 

The ODH contract will continue through 2025, and likely longer. To install the system for all 22 SSPs in Ohio, Hoffer employs two CWRU alumni, Kelley Kampman (Anthropology, PhD, 2021) and Estee Cramer (MPH, 2019) in this work. 

“This project is complex, it’s really like having 22 separate projects. A well-trained, hard working, and expert team has been essential to the success of this work, and we are just getting started.”        

The goal is to provide SSPs in Ohio with useful information to plan and evaluate what they do locally but also create a statewide network of providers using data-driven science to inform and direct harm reduction efforts.This collaborative project between CWRU, ODH and local SSPs will allow more efficient research on local drug use and harm reduction. 

“No one is currently seeing the data,” he said. “It’s often challenging to get SSPs past the adoption phase, but once they do, they appreciate the system. Hopefully, next year we will have our first in person meeting to provide our partners with a complete picture of the efforts occurring across the state.” 

Hoffer’s passion is evident through his efforts to aid SSP efficiency, expansion and visibility. Between visiting individual sites, creating data monitoring systems and teaching anthropology courses, he’s involved in many moving parts that will help save and change lives.