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Spring 2022
THIS ISSUE

Nabarun Dasgupta: Giving a Voice to Every Story

article summary

Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta uses radical empathy and storytelling to address public health challenges.

The complexity of public health work can make it easy to lose sight of uniquely human experiences that impact well-being. Researchers often gather and present data with a narrow focus that may not fully address the public’s concerns, which can intensify barriers to care or leave people vulnerable to misinformation.

The solution may lie in storytelling, according to Nabarun Dasgupta, PhD, MPH, a Gillings Innovation Fellow and senior researcher at UNC’s Injury Prevention Research Center. In public health, narrative can shine a light on challenges faced by underserved communities and put a human face on commonly overlooked issues.

Dasgupta, a 2013 doctoral graduate of the Gilling School, has leveraged his background in epidemiology to tell public health stories through data visualization and empathy.

“I like to say epidemiology is the science of telling true stories about health with numbers,” he explains. “Visualizations are great for telling a story that sticks in people’s minds — if you do it right. More important than creating complex ways to slice and dice numbers is making sure we’re not overlooking who owns the data or where there might be gaps.”

"I like to say epidemiology is the science of telling true stories about health with numbers."

— Nabarun Dasgupta, PhD, MPH

His expertise has helped agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization track public health concerns. He co-founded Epidemico, a health analytics startup that uses machine algorithms to predict disease outbreaks. His knowledge of visual dashboard design has aided development of apps, websites and other tech for government agencies around the world.

His goal is to give the public concise understanding of health challenges and amplify patient voices.

Since 2002, Dasgupta has also worked to better understand the overdose crisis. In 2007, he co-founded Project Lazarus to address surging overdose deaths in Wilkes County, North Carolina. By working with local pastors, agencies and community health outlets, Project Lazarus took an approach to harm reduction that Dasgupta calls “radical empathy” by having difficult conversations about a stigmatized topic that affected many.

Project Lazarus brought the overdose death rate down 69% by helping doctors prescribe opioids more safely, developing support for pain patients and training people to use naloxone, a drug to reverse overdose. With support from the N.C. Medical Board, Project Lazarus was the first program to distribute naloxone kits directly to pain patients and people who use drugs, even though it required a doctor’s prescription at the time.

"What patients fear more than side effects is having information withheld. In our zeal to get people vaccinated, I feel like public health hasn’t been talking about side effects in an open way, and so some people aren’t going back for their second dose or boosters."

— Nabarun Dasgupta, PhD, MPH

In 2012, Dasgupta co-founded the Remedy Alliance naloxone buyers club in response to a shortage of this life-saving drug. The team worked directly with Pfizer to acquire naloxone at a discounted price for distribution in harm reduction programs. Today, the buyers club facilitates nearly 150 such programs. It has been critical during the pandemic, when shortages have made costs skyrocket and limited the drug’s access from last mile programs that have difficulty meeting regulations necessary to acquire it.

“We are leaving behind our strongest allies in the current model of distributing and administrating naloxone,” Dasgupta says. “There are Super Savers in the community who have reversed dozens of overdoses, and they teach others how to use it. They’re the ones who drive most of that intervention. We’re not empowering this innovative first responder phenomenon to be even more effective. We need to focus on getting them naloxone with no limits from insurance companies or pharmacists.”

The overdose crisis has recently shifted away from prescription drugs to street drugs that are more difficult to track and may contain dangerous ingredients. In 2022, Dasgupta received funding from the Foundation for Opioid Response Efforts to develop laboratory methods to analyze street drugs in real time, along with systems to alert the public about potential dangers.

His recent work also centers untold stories by encouraging people to report side effects of drugs and vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, because adverse events reported by physicians and pharmacists are sometimes different from those that concern patents.

It’s hard for clinicians to be honest about side effects, Dasgupta says, but proactive conversations are necessary to establish trust in health care.

“What patients fear more than side effects is having information withheld. In our zeal to get people vaccinated, I feel like public health hasn’t been talking about side effects in an open way, and so some people aren’t going back for their second dose or boosters. That’s something we could have addressed and can serve as a lesson on how to improve future public health communication.”