FAIRFIELD — A new program at Sacred Heart University will work to combat the opioid crisis in Connecticut.

SHU’s College of Nursing is launching an initiative called Alternatives to Opioids for Pain (ALTOP). SHU announced Monday the project has received a $2.4 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration under the Advanced Nursing Education Workforce (ANEW) program, a federal initiative that supports academic clinical partnerships that prepare nurses to work in rural and underserved communities.

ALTOP was developed in response to the opioid epidemic, a national crisis that is particularly acute in Connecticut; the state has one of the highest rates of opioid-related deaths in the U.S. According to the state’s Department of Public Health, Connecticut residents are more likely to die from unintentional drug overdose than from a motor vehicle accident.

ALTOP will work to quell this epidemic by training nursing students in the appropriate use of opioids and alternative pain treatments. The program’s developers hope that equipping nurses with these skills and knowledge can halt opioid addiction in its tracks.

“Pain is one of the most common reasons for patient visits to a primary care provider,” said SHU Professor Susan DeNisco, principle investigator and director of the project. “This project will prepare the next generation of nurse practitioners with safe and effective prescribing patterns.”

ALTOP will create and support academic clinical partnerships at two federally qualified health centers in Bridgeport, Optimus Health Care and Southwest Community Health Center. These locations will allow ALTOP to benefit medically underserved areas of Bridgeport.

Through working with these health centers, the program aims to recruit, retain and evaluate medical instructors that can educate the next generation of nursing students in best practices for pain treatment. The ANEW grant will also reduce educational debt, allowing nursing students from disadvantaged backgrounds to work in the field.

Late SHU Professor Julie G. Stewart, who recently passed away and helped develop the program, hoped that ALTOP would contribute to overall improvements in pain management protocols.

“By educating future [nurses] to work in collaboration with other members of the health care team to combat the opioid crisis, the ALTOP program will lead to quality improvement and safety initiatives for all patients at risk for opiate use disorders,” Stewart said.

rscharf@hearstmediact.com