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Meghan Steel is an epidemiologist for the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center. She has roots in Kentucky but grew up in Texas before attending the University of Alabama and then the University of Texas Medical Branch for her master’s degree. Her work creating custom data reports at KIPRC is primarily through the Overdose Data to Action grant with the Drug Overdose Technical Assistance Core (DOTAC).

Q: Where did you grow up and what college/ did you attend?

I grew up spending the majority of my time in the North Dallas area with my mother, but my Kentucky roots started when I was around 14 years old and my father’s side of the family moved to a small farmhouse in Bourbon County. It took me several years to make my way back to Lexington, first by earning my bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of Alabama (roll tide) and then my masters of public health degree in epidemiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Q: What drew you to public health?

Public health gave me an opportunity to apply the otherwise esoteric lessons from my medical anthropology classes in a real-world setting through which I could also directly help the people I would have previously been only observing from a distance. Similarly, as a person who enjoys tackling large, systemic issues that often require complex and dynamic interventions, public health and specifically health policy seemed like the ideal field to achieve that goal. I am also good at collecting knowledge from otherwise disparate sources and interpreting those findings into a format that can be used to make active improvements in my community, a skill that my work in public health regularly utilizes.

Q: What is your current role at KIPRC?

I am an epidemiologist working on the Overdose Data to Action grant. Specifically, I am part of the strategy 5 team known as the Drug Overdose Technical Assistance Core or DOTAC. This role represents the bridge between the surveillance and the community prevention strategies of the grant by creating custom reports that translate the complex data on drug overdose in Kentucky into digestible reports that can be utilized in the development and implementation of evidence-based and evidence-driven interventions.

Q: As you work with the DOTAC team, you produce many data reports. Can you explain how that works?

DOTAC works with three primary data sets: 1) death certificate data, 2) hospital discharge data, and 3) emergency medical services (EMS) data. Each of these data sources contains unique information that can help us assess the burden of drug overdose in Kentucky and how this burden has changed over time. Anyone with a vested interest in assessing the burden of drug overdose in their service region can submit a request for a custom report. Once we’ve received this request, we select the best data sets that can be analyzed to generate the relevant numbers. For example, when a stakeholder is interested in assessing overdoses by broad drug classes like opioids and stimulants, we can use both the hospital discharge and the death certificate data. If the stakeholder is also interested in more specific drug types like fentanyl and methamphetamine, we can only find those numbers within the death certificate data. In contrast, EMS data cannot be used to identify overdoses by drug types other than opioids or by demographic characteristics but is available for release more quickly, compared to the other two data sets. This means that we cannot assess the numbers with the same amount of detail that we could use for hospital discharge or death certificate data; we use EMS data to track the more recent trends in drug overdose that we would otherwise need to wait several months to see in the other data sets.

Q: What’s the most interesting part of your role?

I love hearing about all the programs and interventions that our data are used to support. For example, a member of our community outreach team informed me that our report on drug overdose deaths among members of the armed forces was used to support the development of a substance use treatment and prevention program for veteran students at Eastern Kentucky University. Every time our data are used in a grant application or for grant reporting, I know that I’ve done my part to bolster substance use treatment and prevention services in Kentucky.

Q: Outside of work, what hobbies/interests do you have?

Outside of work, I enjoy spending time with my two dogs, Ozzy and Lyra, and helping my husband to fix up our 175-year-old historic home. You might also find me crocheting a sweater or putting together a jigsaw puzzle from time to time.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

I am currently enrolled in the PhD program for Health Services Research (HSR) in UK’s College of Public Health. I plan to build upon my time with KIPRC by working to develop health policies that create an environment where substance use disorder can be effectively treated and prevented. For anyone interested in a career related to health policy, health economics, or health outcomes research, I would encourage them to consider UK’s HSR program as a possible avenue for achieving that goal.