How Virginia communities fight the opioid epidemic
- By Jake Bittner
- Feb 27, 2020
America continues to face a well-documented opioid epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 130 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose. In the current “third wave” of the opioid epidemic, synthetic opioids are often added to street drugs like heroin and cocaine. The situation is serious and dire. But progress in the battle against opioids is being made, in part thanks to technology.
Data collected by state and local agencies can offer a far more detailed understanding of the crisis, allowing government and community organizations alike to better see how drugs are affecting their neighborhoods and how they should respond. The key to fighting the opioid battle might just be combining datasets from disparate organizations -- from police departments to the judiciary to health care providers -- to gather insights that are actionable on the front lines.
Virginia brings data to the fight
In Virginia, a data platform called FAACT (the Framework for Addiction Analysis and Community Transformation) is helping community organizations do just that. A collaboration between the Virginia Departments of Criminal Justice Services and Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, the FAACT platform was developed and deployed by Qlarion, a professional services firm delivering data analytics solutions to public-sector organizations.
In the Shenandoah Valley, where FAACT was piloted in late 2018, first responders now have a more detailed view of drug addiction and treatment, allowing for targeted assistance and the better allocation of resources.
A variety of organizations, including health care and social services, public safety and corrections, drug courts and community coalitions have all been amassing a large amount of information about opioids, criminal activity and illegal drug use. But that data has long been siloed and stored in a wide range of formats, from spreadsheets and databases to paper files. FAACT lets agencies combine those disparate datasets, plus data from all available external sources. It is all documented and transferred into a standard format, while sensitive information is anonymized.
A detailed view of the crisis
The sheer amount of data that states like Virginia collect would be practically useless in its raw form. Users must be able to quickly build reports, dig for correlations and actually make decisions based on their findings. With FAACT, which is secure and searchable, responders on the front lines can generate insights about contributing factors for opioid abuse and the most effective ways for communities to respond.
A data visualization compiled from 80,000 police records, for instance, can show which day of the week a drug abuser is more likely to use in any given county. One community saw higher police and emergency room encounters with opioids between Tuesdays and Thursdays, so officials there began to conduct opioid prevention outreach mid-week.
Through FAACT, responders have uncovered other trends that may have gone undetected. For example, the data showed illicit drug use is generally accompanied by corresponding crimes, such as prescription fraud or home invasion and robbery. In one community, cocaine use strongly correlated with an uptick in violent crimes, and heroin with burglaries. In fact, the data showed violent crime can be a precursor to a blooming cocaine addiction crisis.
These connections are extremely valuable to the allocation of police and health care resources. Police better understand what drugs are hot in what areas and can staff accordingly, while hospitals can bring in peer-recovery specialists for the right substances.
Using data to improve treatment
In addition to being able to spot places with likely opioid abuse disorder, the platform shows that data can be a powerful ally in developing proactive treatment plans. Using the patterns discerned from historical data, workers can infer recommendations that can help prevent future addiction and opioid misuse.
For instance, factors like poverty and housing insecurity may not seem immediately related to drug addiction but are in fact strong predictors of health. If a workers see a historical correlation between childhood trauma and later drug addiction, they can better focus treatment efforts on at-risk kids through early intervention programs.
This is just a sample of the insights that are possible when data is pulled out of silos and visualized. In Virginia and beyond, states are storing a ton of information about the opioid crisis that is ravaging local communities. But far too often, they don’t have the data-sharing program or platform in place to support analysis and action.
By bringing data together and presenting it in an actionable manner, state and local agencies can gain a better handle on the drug addiction challenges within their localities. They can accrue valuable knowledge that helps them support their communities and save lives.
Jake Bittner is CEO of Qlarion.