bottle of opioids (Phil Lowe /

Data key to cracking opioid crisis, experts say

With the opioid crisis ravaging communities across the country,   social services, law enforcement and health officials are looking for solutions. The Department of Health and Human Services Dec. 6 Opioid Symposium & Code-a-Thon highlighted what many sees as a critical part of a solution: data

Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams talked about a how a rise in HIV infections was being spread by needles when he was the Indiana health commissioner. ”If we had better data we could have prevented some of those infections,” he said.

Now, communities across the country are collecting and sharing data to organize overdose response and even predict when a spike could be imminent.

Prescription drug monitoring programs are considered one of the “most promising state-level interventions to improve opioid prescribing, inform clinical practice, and protect patients at risk,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A PDMP tracks prescriptions of controlled substances throughout a state, giving doctors and pharmacists insight into patient behavior and supporting states’ efforts in education, research, enforcement and abuse prevention. But sharing this sensitive data among healthcare providers, pharmacies and other organizations can be difficult , according to Chris Baumgartner, the drug systems director for the Washington State Department of Health.

Washington began working to connect its PDMP to the Emergency Department Information Exchange and the Epic electronic health record system in 2013. Using the state's OneHealthPort health information exchange, providers with Epic EHR systems could automatically access PDMP data when the patient registers in the emergency department, streamlining workflow.

The state is continuing improve its PDMP, adding a Tableau dashboard  that Baumgartner said would provide another tool to analyze the collected data.

Same problem, different state

“We have the same epidemic in Indiana that a lot of other states are facing,” said Tim George, the director of policy for the Indiana governor’s office.

When Gov. Eric Holcomb made the opioid issue a priority for the administration, the state began laying out a plan that was based on data. “That became the aspect that we really decided to focus on,” George said.

Many  state-level agencies collect data related to the opioid crisis; the issue was bringing that all into one location, according to Indiana Chief Data Officer Darshan Shah. “The agencies wanted to share data,” he said, but legal and privacy concerns prevented  them from doing so readily.

The creation of an incentive provided the solution, George said. Agencies weren't interested in giving their data away to a portal they'd never see. So the state crafted a memorandum of understanding that gave all agencies that provide data to the opioid hub access not only to their data but to that of other contributing agencies.

This data hub is now being used to drive decisions on how to tackle the crisis across the state. For example, it’s being used to determine where treatment facilities should go and explain to those communities why they are needed.

“Everyone wants these facilities, but no one wants them in their backyard,” Shah said.

Mobile fix

At the street level, first responders and medical professionals in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area are using the ODMap mobile app. They enter information on overdoses, including whether the overdose was fatal and if Naloxone  was used. Over time the app can spot overdose trends that can give the communities where overdoses are happening and the surrounding localities a chance to prepare, according to Jeff Beeson, the chief of staff for Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program that created ODMap.

If officials see an overdose spike in the next ZIP code over where they know drugs come from, then they know a spike could be heading their way, too, he said.

So far, ODMap has logged more than 8,000 overdoses and is used in 23 states and more than 200 counties, according HIDTA.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.


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