How Data Analytics Can Help in America’s Opioid Epidemic

by | May 13, 2019 | Healthcare

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The opioid epidemic that is sweeping the country is one of the most commonly discussed health crises in America. But what is baffling is how society simply cannot keep up with the death toll for which these powerful synthetic drugs are responsible.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2017, opiates were responsible for the deaths of over 47,500 Americans. To put these powerful drugs into perspective, heroin and prescription opiates are the lesser of the evils, as fentanyl can be up to “100 times more potent than morphine.” Of course, when the victims of this epidemic are already heavily addicted as a result of their dependency on physician-prescribed pills, the progression of the disease leads them to believe that fentanyl – the most powerful killer – is the most desired to obtain.

Considering the rapid casualties caused by drug overdoses, this crisis is seemingly impossible to track, let alone solve. However, with the help of data analytics, stakeholders can make significant strides to combat the issue. Let’s examine.

Breaking down casualties

In order to solve any healthcare crisis, it is necessary for healthcare specialists to keep up with relevant statistics. This is the first and arguably the most detrimental roadblock that the opioid epidemic poses: researchers simply cannot keep up with the frequent casualties caused by fentanyl, heroin, and prescription opioids.

According to author Jennifer Bresnick in an article in HealthITAnalytics, “Unlike so much other population health data that can lag by months or years, opioid deaths in Massachusetts are hawkishly tracked on a quarterly basis, immediately released to the public in a vain effort to stay one step ahead of the curve.”

Sadly, this effort is simply not enough as, “Largely ineligible for the financial aid available to physicians and hospitals, behavioral healthcare providers have been unable to catch up with their peers in terms of data collection, exchange, and analytics.”

Where analytics can step in

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb notes that “waiting for the accumulation of definitive evidence of harm left [the FDA] a step behind a crisis that was evolving quickly, and sometimes furtively, in vulnerable communities that were too often being tragically ignored.”

More often than not, these communities are among those that contribute heavily to the opiate crisis, so it is imperative that researchers have definitive data evidence. More timely and specific data combined with machine learning algorithms can “assess vulnerability points in the population through predictive [analysis], identify early trends that may be contributing to the epidemic, and target early regulatory changes to address the changing opioid epidemic.” The information that data analysis can provide is a game changer when it comes to the most crippling part of the opiate crisis: staying ahead of the casualties.

Healthcare providers and researchers are coming to the conclusion that in addition to insufficient funds, the lack of proper technology and the absence of data analytics in the behavioral health field is one of the reasons why professionals are only scratching the surface for a solution.

In the HealthITAnalytics article, Colin Beatty, CEO of Boston-based Column Health, notes that, “More than half of clinics in the space have absolutely no technology whatsoever – they’re purely paper-based and cash-based. As a result, there’s very little data out there for payers and other stakeholders to use.”

With this information offered by Beatty, it is clear that data analytics can provide the information necessary to finally get a leg up on this issue. As reported in Becker’s Hospital Review, with the application of data analytics, researchers have already unearthed the bedrock of this pressing issue: “a lack of transparency into the data for a provider’s patient population. It is critical for data to be actionable, accurate, and easily accessible to formulate a successful plan for changing clinical practice; inaccurate or incomplete data can result in mistrust and impede change management strategies.”

With the leverage that data analytics can offer, providers can have access to a plan that can “prevent the ‘spread’ of substance use disorder to vulnerable populations and providing care to those with a current diagnosis of substance use disorder.” As mentioned in the article, prevention strategies can be broken down into two categories: “1) Prevention of addiction, including education of prescribing habits and providing alternatives for chronic pain management, and 2) expanding treatment to patients addicted to opioid medications.” These are just two examples of the many approaches that can be applied using data analytics and technology.

Offering insight into the educational sector of this problem is necessary, but using data analytics can also provide useful tools to create preventative methods of revision, such as measuring morphine milligram equivalents. If providers and researchers can successfully fund proper technology in behavioral healthcare, data analytics can provide the information necessary to get ahead of the curve and establish a promising solution to address this epidemic.

Clare Dealy
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