How tech can help the opioid crisis

by American City & County Contributor
Mar 14, 2018

By Bob Nevins

Dubbed the “deadliest drug crisis in American history” by the New York Times, opioid overdose claimed more lives last year than guns or car accidents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total economic burden of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice involvement.

This is an enormous challenge that both public and private institutions are trying to solve, and we’ve seen significant discussion on the topic. But, what role does technology play in assisting government agencies in better managing the issue? Recently, technology firms and innovators have begun using cloud computing to identify warning signs, determine causation, maintain prescription databases and mobilize emergency responders. While technology is only one piece of the solution, it is already helping federal agencies and municipalities. Here are a few examples that show how:  

  1. Cloud data and “The Heroin Tracker”
    After a frightening summer of overdoses and fatalities, the City of Cincinnati came together to launch a new strategy to track overdoses and deploy emergency help to addicts. The city began analyzing emergency medical services (EMS) response data to identify geographic “hotspots,” aiding public safety by organizing emergency personnel. This subset of EMS data, known as “The Heroin Tracker,” is updated automatically each night from the 911 call and public safety dispatch database. According to Cincinnati’s Chief Data Officer Brandon E. Crawley, the Tracker results in practical action. Public safety and health-department officials and workers at a non-profit offering substance-abuse treatment (Talbert House) check the Heroin Tracker to determine targeted patrols and anticipate spikes in drug activity. These efforts are part of Cincinnati’s larger vision of becoming a Smart City, and they plan on continuing to share and gather data to create public dashboards. Other entities, like the Drug Enforcement Agency and the CDC, are also encouraging the use of geospatial maps for communities to locate their utmost vulnerabilities.


  1. Substance abuse contact centers
    As states and counties roll out contact centers aimed at providing real time access to addiction counselors and information - cloud-provided software solutions offer robust functionality that can be set up in a short time frame without investment in expensive infrastructure.  One such contact center in Massachusetts - - enables users to answer a series of questions which guide them to information on treatment centers that are most appropriate for their particular circumstances. 


  1. Intercepting prescription drug abuse with data analytics
    States have also been implementing prescription drug monitoring programs, which are designed to help identify signs of drug abuse. The programs use a database that integrates medical claims information with prescription drug information as well as analytics that help identify suspicious patterns of prescriptions of controlled substances, including opioids.


  1. Data-driven prevention and response
    In October 2016, the CDC created the Prescription Drug Overdose: Data-Driven Prevention Initiative (DDPI), which is awarding $18 million over three years to 13 states and the District of Columbia to support efforts to end opioid overdosing through improved data collection and analysis around opioid misuse, abuse and overdose. The initiative also supports states to use analytics to help identify and impact behaviors that drive prescription opioid dependence and abuse. Another CDC initiative, the Enhanced State Surveillance of Opioid-Involved Morbidity and Mortality, has designated $12.8 million to 12 states to help improve data collection and expedite reporting of nonfatal and fatal opioid overdose.

As Americans become increasingly aware of the dangers of addiction, it’s encouraging to see patients consider alternative treatment options. With the continued and combined efforts of government legislation, community-based care and the tech industry, there’s renewed hope in the fight to reduce opioid addiction and its impact.

Bob Nevins is director of health and human services strategy at Oracle.

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