Providence Research Profiles: Dr. Geoff Bardwell

In an effort to shine a light on our many notable researchers, Providence Research is profiling the careers of those who work within our inspiring research community.

Profile Substance Use | Grace Jenkins

Dr. Geoff Bardwell

In an effort to shine a light on our many notable researchers, Providence Research is profiling the careers of those who work within our inspiring research community. This month, we are profiling Dr. Geoff Bardwell, a research scientist with the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and an assistant professor in the School of Public Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo.

Dr. Bardwell’s research focuses on overdose prevention, the implementation of public health interventions targeted towards people who use drugs, and how those elements are shaped by social, structural, political and environmental contexts. His current work centres around rural and remote communities, which are disproportionately impacted by overdoses.

Research focus inspired by background growing up in rural community

Dr. Bardwell joined the BCCSU in 2017, where he completed a postdoctoral fellowship with the BCCSU’s Director of Research, Dr. Thomas Kerr. At the time, he was Principal Investigator for the national evaluation of MySafe, a low-barrier safer supply program. Bardwell kept his affiliation and projects with the BCCSU when he moved to the University of Waterloo in 2022. 

His experience in the sector has forged respect for the values that exist and the networking between the BCCSU, the provincial government and health authorities. The BCCSU is a provincially networked organization, and is supported by the provincial government in its aim to transform substance use policies and care by translating research into education and care guidance. Additionally, drug checking reports published by the BCCSU each month are used by health authorities to help monitor the drug market.

“Those are important alliances to have if we want to affect any sort of change at system levels,” says Dr. Bardwell.

Inspired by his background growing up in a rural farming community in Ontario, Dr. Bardwell has moved away from conducting research in larger cities to focus on rural and remote communities. One of his current studies is looking into access to opioid agonist treatment (OAT) in rural and Indigenous communities across British Columbia.

“I have a personal connection to the work that I do, in terms of how people access a variety of services if they live in smaller communities,” says Dr. Bardwell.

Addressing unique substance use challenges faced by rural communities.

People who use substances, who live in rural communities, can face challenges in accessing care and resources.

“I think [substance use research] is important in general, but I think it’s specifically important in rural, smaller settings. That’s not just because they are disproportionately impacted, but also because there is a variety of unique challenges that need to be addressed,” says Dr. Bardwell.

These challenges include inadequate transportation infrastructure across large geographic areas, fewer resources, a lack of specialized services, and difficulties in retaining doctors and nurses in rural communities. 

Another of Dr. Bardwell’s current studies is looking at OAT access in Powell River, a rural city in northern British Columbia. In this longitudinal study, Dr. Bardwell and his team conduct yearly rounds of interviews, which enables them to look at time as a variable and see how changing circumstances, such as housing, impact access to services. In their first round of interviews, they learned that people who were not living centrally in Powell River faced many barriers travelling to a clinic every day to pick up their OAT treatment doses. 

A voice for people living in rural and remote communities

Because of the different challenges and circumstances facing people who live in rural communities, results of research that primarily concentrates on larger cities do not always reflect rural areas. 

“That can be problematic, when you’re applying research that was done in the Downtown East Side to, say, Powell River,” says Dr. Bardwell. 

Part of what drives Dr. Bardwell in his research is the ability to engage with the communities. Having grown up in a rural farming town, Dr. Bardwell was very aware of the challenges facing those communities, particularly when it came to accessing health care and other resources. This motivated him to want to be a part of the voice for people living in rural and remote communities. 

A study of his was recently published in the Journal of Substance Use and Addiction, “A qualitative assessment of tablet injectable opioid agonist therapy (TiOAT) in rural and smaller urban British Columbia, Canada: Motivations and initial impacts”The studyfound that TiOAT reduced overdose risk for people living in rural communities in B.C., and in some cases helped participants to manage withdrawal symptoms.

“Because the challenges are different in these settings, it’s really important to tease out how different interventions might be affected by rural-specific factors,” says Dr. Bardwell.