Dr. Arthur Robin Williams ’04 conducts research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate outcomes over time for individuals suffering from drug addiction. He sees potential for reforms instituted in response to Covid-19 — such as virtual treatment options — to help increase health care access and outcomes post-pandemic, especially in rural and underserved regions.
Williams is an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and director of the New York region of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry. He also serves as medical director of Ophelia Health, Inc., which provides online, medication-assisted treatment for opioid dependence. He is a fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (FASAM).
As an undergraduate at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, Williams was interested in pursuing both the practice of medicine and public health policy. Here he shares how his multi-faceted career threads his interests together.
Q. What is/are the most important policy issue(s) facing us today?
Williams: Over the course of my college career at Princeton in the early 2000s, it became apparent that addiction and our failed policy responses to drug use in the United States cut across all major social and political issues with unavoidable implications for the economy, criminal justice reform, education, child welfare, and housing. Nonetheless, it would have never occurred to me at the time that, over the next two decades, addiction would lead to lower life expectancies in the U.S. and become the number one cause of death for individuals under 50 years of age.
Q. What are you most passionate about? What current project or initiative are you most excited about?
Williams: As an NIH-funded researcher, most of my work is with observational data (e.g., health records, insurance claims, policy reports) to investigate long-term trajectories and outcomes among people treated for addiction. In response to Covid-19 last spring, federal health agencies temporarily lifted regulations on treating patients through telehealth and relaxed regulations on methadone programs. This is a natural experiment at an unprecedented scale. If these reforms don’t undermine safety, or if they actually improve outcomes and retention, it could alter our laws permanently, improving access to much-needed care, especially in rural and underserved areas. Over the past few months, I was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse Clinical Trials Network to study these programs across the country to ascertain the impact of reform.
Q. Over the course of your career, what are the most important skills/strategies you’ve learned?
Williams: Persistence. Even the best ideas usually require multiple attempts before they come to fruition. Consulting colleagues is also important. In today’s world, everything has become extremely specialized. No matter what you are working on, there is usually someone who knows more about one particular facet of the project or approach than you could possibly ever know. I increasingly work as part of a multidisciplinary team and while this may be more painstaking the work is more rigorous.