Opinion Piece: Harm Reduction & Innovation

“The term innovation derives from the Latin word innovatus, which is the noun form of innovare “to renew or change,” stemming from in—”into” + novus—”new”. Although the term is broadly used, innovation generally refers to the creation of better or more effective products, processes, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society.

Innovation differs from invention or renovation in that innovation generally signifies a substantial positive change compared to incremental changes.”

(Wikipedia, ‘Innovation’  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innovation accessed 8th November 2011)

In recent weeks I have been thinking a lot about the nature of innovation and in particular what innovation means within the context of harm reduction.

The history of the harm reduction movement has been marked by its innovative approach to problems identified in our communities.  The implementation of ideas and strategies that are often initially considered counter intuitive and nearly always opposed, have assisted in reducing drug related harm over the last 30 or so years.  The results of such forward thinking in many instances, has not only been better health outcomes for drug users, but for our communities as a whole.

Innovation: a response to crisis

I would assert that innovation by its nature is very often conceived as a solution to an identified problem and in the case of harm reduction nearly every innovative harm reduction strategy developed has been in response to an imminent threat to public health and safety.  In contemplating the history of harm reduction in my state of Victoria (Australia not Canada) the major innovation breakthroughs (and some of the near misses) have been in response to a perceived crisis.  The 1980’s and the discovery of HIV/AIDS resulted in sweeping changes to the service system with harm reduction being articulated for the first time at a national drug policy level.  Politicians, health bureaucrats and on the ground workers took the risk to try something new in order to avert the potential for epidemic.  It was around this time that the first needle syringe programs started operating in Australia.

The late 1990’s saw a new problem arise in Victoria and indeed in many parts of Australia: the influx of cheap and easily available heroin resulting in higher prevalence of use and record numbers of opiate overdose.  Again harm reductionists geared up to try new approaches.  It was around this time that Victoria commenced trials of a range of new opioid pharmacotherapies such as buprenorphine and levo-alpha-acetyl-methodol (LAAM) resulting in an extension in the range of opioid pharmacotherapies made available to heroin dependent people in my home state.

Even more telling was the open discussions at both a political level and within communities around Victoria about the potential of a medically supervised injecting centre to save lives and reduce drug related harms.  Unfortunately that idea never quite got off the ground in Victoria due to some fairly staunch opposition. A trial medically supervised injecting centre did get off the ground in the neighbouring state of New South Wales and remains open today as the only centre of it’s type in the southern hemisphere.

Looking into my crystal ball…

So what is the future of innovation in the harm reduction sector?  In some ways the world around us has changed dramatically since the start of the 21st Century.  The next big crisis may well be hard to predict, however there are other opportunities for innovation premised upon the changes that have occurred in the communities in which we operate.

Of course one of the major changes to occur over this period has been the emergence of a growingly accessible internet that has become ubiquitous within many of our communities.  The prevalence of use of social networks and the broader internet in general has created a virtual space for people to communicate.  These communications reflect what occurs in the ‘real world’ including the use of drugs.  As my friend and colleague Nigel Brunsdon (@injectingadvice) recently pointed out on Twitter, people talk about drugs online, they buy drugs online, they take pictures and movies of themselves whilst intoxicated and post them online, they purchase drugs online… and they seek information about drugs online.

I would assert that finding ways to successfully engage with drug users in virtual spaces and provide harm reduction interventions that are accessible, effective and measurable will be just one of the innovation challenges that the harm reduction field faces in coming years.  To fail to do so will be a failure of one of the traditional innovations that harm reduction brought to the drug treatment field – meeting people where they are at.

Want to discuss innovation in the Alcohol and other Drugs Sector?

Then for all of you Melbourne folks you might want to book a seat at Innovation in Action, a seminar hosted by Uniting Care Moreland Hall on the 11th of November to hear speakers such as Chris Raine (@ckraine) Nigel Brunsdon (@injectingadvice)  Associate Professor David Best (@davidwbest12) and many others speak about innovation in the alcohol and other drugs sector.

For those of you who can’t attend you might want to follow the tweet up under the hashtag  #iAOD2011  Feel free to post a question to one of the panel members!

2 Responses to “Opinion Piece: Harm Reduction & Innovation”
  1. Amanda says:

    “Opinion Piece: Harm Reduction & Innovation Stonetree
    Harm Reduction” was indeed a wonderful blog post, can
    not wait to read through far more of your blogs. Time to waste a bit
    of time on-line hehe. Thanks for your effort -Chester

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