How Tech Is Impacting America’s Opioid Crisis

The New York Times has called it the “deadliest drug crisis in American history,” and for good reason. Every day, 115 Americans or more perish after overdosing on opioids. Of course, we’re talking about the modern opioid epidemic that has swept across the nation. Three-fourths of all drug overdose deaths can be attributed to opioids, prescription painkillers, heroin and synthetics like fentanyl notwithstanding.

It is considered a crisis not only because of the public health ramifications, but also its impact on social and economic welfare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that prescription opioid abuse costs the United States $78.5 billion a year. That estimate includes the cost of healthcare, productivity loss, addiction and health treatment, and criminal justice burdens.

It is not just a growing concern, it is a massive problem that has sweeping consequences for all, and it will continue to amass power unless we do something about it. Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients that are prescribed opioids for chronic pain eventually misuse or abuse them. This is despite the fact that pharmaceutical companies maintained for years that patients could and would not become addicted to prescription opioids and pain relievers. Naturally, the healthcare industry was less cautious about prescribing and using them which led to rampant misuse over time. When it became clear that, in fact, these medications are highly addictive, it was already too late.

Luckily, modern technology can be used to fight against the growing crisis, with the promise that it could eventually stem or even stop the issue altogether. Of course, that will take lots of time, resources, and research.

How Modern Tech Can Make a Difference

One of the most important requirements of a problem such as this is being able to fully understand why it’s happening, what triggers these addictions, and how we can better predict behavior and employ preventative measures. You can’t, for instance, withhold proper medication from every single patient on the pretense that they could become addicted. It’s more important to understand the how and why and see if we can come up with better solutions, alternatives, or even treatment plans.

Again, this requires massive amounts of resources and research, which could then take years maybe even decades to put to use. But that’s exactly where modern technology has plenty to offer, specifically in regards to big data and advanced analytics.

Major computing organization IBM has partnered with MAP Health Management to develop a platform for use with Watson AI and analytics. The system will analyze physician handwriting details and various points of real-time data from smart devices to identify at-risk patients likely to relapse or experience addiction.

It’s platforms that rely on modern technology such as IBM’s Watson that will help us better understand the opioid addiction crisis and identify new ways to deal with it. In October 2016, the CDC established the Prescription Drug Overdose: Data-Driven Prevention Initiative (DDPI) to support and sustain projects that would go towards actively fighting the epidemic.

Many states across the country have also adopted the use of a prescription drug monitoring program or PDMP to allow health authorities to oversee and understand patient and healthcare behaviors that lead to addiction. More importantly, the system helps alert the proper individuals about a potential problem and enables swift action or response.

The City of Cincinnati also established a similar data and analytics tool known as the “Heroin Tracker” which is maintained and updated automatically thanks to data from the 911 call and public safety dispatch database. Public safety and health-department officials use collected data to identify areas of contention or high drug activity, to create more targeted patrol routes.

Big Data, Analytics, Cloud Computing, and Predictive Tools Are the Answer

One theme you can start to see through all of these current instances of tech is that they can be used to identify and understand problem areas or motivations. This data can be passed to the proper authorities, such as the way the City of Cincinnati has done with their Heroine Tracker, to respond and take action.

Technology is providing us many new and innovative ways to get to the root of the problem and truly understand how we can stem this growing epidemic. Step one for any problem is to better understand it, find ways to combat it, and then take action. Modern tech can help us follow this natural progression of reactionary measures, starting with enlightenment.

 

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Nathan P. Sykes

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