Dr. Hansel Tookes III

A champion for needle exchange programs

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

A champion for needle exchange programs

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
Hansel Tookes, alumnus and assistant professor of medicine, will share his story of success at the Graduate and Postdoctoral Research Symposium next week.

Just a few years ago, when Dr. Hansel Tookes was a medical student at the University of Miami, he was doing his clinical rotations at Jackson Memorial Hospital one evening when he began to realize that patients who use drugs faced serious challenges within the formal health care system.

“Nationwide, people who inject drugs face tremendous stigma within the health care system and society at large,” said Tookes, now an assistant professor of medicine at the Miller School of Medicine.

That epiphany, along with years of research about intravenous drug use, helped fuel Tookes’ desire to create a robust needle exchange program and a clinic focused on treating this population with dignity. In 2016, Tookes founded the IDEA Exchange, Florida’s first needle exchange program and clinic designed to help people who inject drugs, with a goal to lower the state’s high rates of HIV transmission and other blood-borne diseases.  

“What we have learned from this comprehensive needle exchange program is that we can do more than just prevent HIV. We can educate our students on how to treat people with kindness and compassion, how to mitigate drug use, and how to effectively connect with people who have been stigmatized for so long,” he said.

Tookes will share his journey with the University community next week as the keynote speaker at the second annual Graduate and Postdoctoral Research Symposium on Thursday, March 5, in the Shalala Student Center. The conference will begin at 1 p.m. and will highlight groundbreaking work of the University’s graduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows, who will demonstrate their research in short talks, oral presentations, and a poster session.

“Students should be doing meaningful research that drives policy change, rather than research in a vacuum,” said Tookes. “I presented my work as a graduate student and it eventually led to two state laws that changed the entire landscape of the HIV epidemic in Florida.”

Tookes' interest in treating substance use topics blossomed when he was a public health graduate student. He published research about the fact that Miami had eight times the number of publicly discarded needles as the streets of San Francisco, a city with double the number of people who inject drugs. Yet San Francisco had a needle exchange program distributing millions of syringes yearly. Previous research demonstrated that needle exchange programs helped reduce the number of people infected with HIV and other blood-borne diseases, such as Hepatitis C. So soon after, while he was a medical student, Tookes visited the state legislature to advocate for a needle exchange program in Florida.

Open since 2016, the IDEA Exchange has both a clinic at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine campus and a mobile unit. Last spring, the Florida Legislature passed a law to allow counties statewide to open their own needle exchange programs.

Now, Tookes is working to help other counties replicate the success of the IDEA Exchange. He is also working to include substance use disorder training in the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s new curriculum, which begins in the fall.

“I never thought I’d have this opportunity to not only change health care but to train a whole generation of physicians to treat people with respect and evidence-based medicine,” he said. “It’s been the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Students, staff, and faculty who wish to attend the Graduate and Postdoctoral Research Symposium can register here.