Investing in Data Analytics is Key to Fighting the Opioid Crisis


Investing in Data Analytics is Key to Fighting the Opioid Crisis

While opioid abuse and substance use disorder have been nationwide issues for years, COVID-19 had a multiplying effect on the issue. Those suffering from substance abuse disorder have had been disproportionately affected by the “twindemic,” and the CDC reports that more than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality, particularly from fentanyl or fentanyl-like substances.

  • 81,000 deaths occurred in the US from May 2019 to May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.
  • The risk for non-prescribed fentanyl positivity has risen by more than 50% during the pandemic
  • Suspected opioid overdoses rose by 18% in March 2020, 29% in April, and 42% in May, compared to the same months in 2019.

(Sources: Washington Post, CDC)


Even before the advent of COVID-19, the numbers detailing the opioid epidemic’s impact were already staggering—though they help put the toll into perspective, both from human and government standpoints:

  • The (CDC) estimates that the total ‘economic burden’ of prescription opioid use alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.\
  • States lost nearly $13 billion in tax revenue between 2000 to 2018 due to unemployment and missed work resulting from opioid addiction. The state of Pennsylvania alone allocated $526 million on criminal justice opioid response during this time period.
  • Costs to the child welfare system as a result of the opioid epidemic were estimated at around $2.8 billion between 2011 and 2016.

But data is not only useful for describing the problem. It can also be extraordinarily helpful in combatting this seemingly insurmountable challenge.

Data analytics can save lives

State and local governments are tasked with saving lives by helping their citizens fight and overcome addiction. But when faced with the sheer scope of the problem, it can be tough for government agencies to decide how to allocate their limited resources.

The CDC has provided some guidance through its five strategies to prevent opioid misuse and death. At the top of the list is “Conduct Surveillance and Research,” which advocates for the use of high-quality data to “help public health officials and other decision makers understand the extent of the problem, focus resources where they are needed most, and evaluate the success of prevention efforts.”

Data analytics is the engine driving that strategy. Through data analytics, state and local government agencies can gain a clear perspective on where to allocate their resources so they can fight the opioid crisis in a more targeted and effective manner. For example, agencies can:

  • Aggregate prescription information from prescription drug monitoring programs and identify at-risk individuals and prescribers that may be enabling opioid abuse
  • Study pharmacy fill rates—including the number of prescriptions by provider—and ascertain whether or not prescriptions are associated with a doctor visit
  • Analyze how social groups may be enabling the transfer of prescribed substances from one member to another

The Commonwealth of Virginia’s data-driven initiative

Data analytics is essential to building treatment and prevention programs that work effectively. Data can be used to spot early trends that may be contributing to the epidemic; assess and identify the most vulnerable areas of a state or county’s population; pinpoint critical research areas for allocation of emergency funds; identify effective approaches and targeted areas for early intervention; and more.

The work being done by the Commonwealth of Virginia is an excellent case in point, where the Framework for Addiction Analytics and Community Transformation (FAACT) program has been an unqualified success. Developed by Qlarion, the FAACT platform combines data analytics with a community-led effort that brings together information from multiple state and local organizations to create a better way to combat addiction and crime within local communities.

FAACT analyzes, correlates, and displays data in ways that make immediate sense to Commonwealth leaders. For instance, a simple line graph compiled from 80,000 police records can indicate which day of the week a drug abuser is more likely to use a selected drug in any given county.

Analysts can also use historical data to identify trends that can be used to proactively treat addiction. For example, if a historical correlation between childhood trauma and later drug addiction is observed, that data can be used to determine how to focus treatment and services to other at-risk youth.

Here are some other insights that have been generated by the FAACT program:

  • Correlations between criminal activity and drug use. In one community, cocaine use was strongly correlated with an increase in violent crimes, whereas heroin use tied directly to an increase in burglaries.
  • Linear correlations between age and addiction. Research showed that many users who began using less dangerous drugs at an early age were more likely to “graduate” to opioids, heroin, or other more dangerous narcotics. Community representatives gained a better understanding of this “age of first use” issue so they could effectively stop the addiction before it started.
  • Number of out-of-state patients. One community found that more than 20 percent of the people seeking drug-related treatment were from West Virginia, resulting in high-cost uncompensated care. The community began sharing state-specific resources with out-of-state residents.

Since its inception, FAACT has helped communities throughout Virginia. The first phase of the program was implemented in Winchester, Va., in the Northern Shenandoah Valley. The program has since grown to include the Roanoke Valley region.

FAACT exemplifies the potential for data analytics to put powerful and actionable insights into the hands of those in charge of fighting the opioid crisis. It shows how analytics can help communities make more informed decisions about where to allocate resources so they can provide their citizens with the appropriate care.

Knowledge is power

When it comes to combatting the opioid epidemic, knowledge truly is power. State and local governments need information to marshal their resources and proactively treat a disease that has been decimating our communities for far too long.

Data analytics provides the people on the front lines with both knowledge and power. It arms them with the insights they need to fight the problem in a more targeted and effective manner that will benefit vulnerable citizens.