Using Data to Save Lives: A New Approach to the Opioid Epidemic

Click to learn more about author Mackenzie Thompson.

There is no shortage of data about the opioid epidemic. Statistics about the prevalence of this problem are available online from a variety of sources, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). How we make use of this data is a separate matter. It is an issue of what and how, regarding the priority we assign to those we seek to help and the means by which we intend to offer help. Interpreting this data is critical to the health not only of the individuals who need help, but to the health of the health care industry as a whole. Hence the urgency behind what data we choose to review, and how we translate that data into a series of lifesaving solutions: We must identify at-risk communities, and do our best to teach them how to guard against this threat.

We must teach them basic life support (BLS) skills. We must teach them how to deliver these skills, if someone has an opioid-related overdose. We must teach them how to go from the sidelines to the front lines of action, provided they have the ability and the training to act without delay. We must analyze data to select the individuals most likely to do the right thing, at the right time, so time is not the enemy of the sick or those who are not breathing.

Think of this training, including first aid and CPR certification, as a necessity for those communities where opioid addiction is higher than the national average. Think, too, of how data can reveal which regions are most vulnerable to this epidemic. And finally, think of how data can place this issue in the broadest context, in terms of the economic and emotional toll addiction exacts on workers and their families.

When we view data creatively, with an eye toward preventing someone from becoming another statistic, we can see solutions that many overlook or do not even know exist. One of those solutions is pairing doctors and nurses, and EMT staff and personnel, with friends or relatives of those most susceptible to abusing opioids. Risk factors include:

  • Someone with a known or developing tolerance to opioids.
  • Relapse following a period of abstinence from substance abuse.
  • Combining opioids, alcohol and other drugs.
  • Using opioids through rapid-onset means of ingestion, such as injecting or snorting opioids.

Given the scope of this epidemic, in which 2.1 million misused opioids in 2016, we need to maximize the data at our disposal. Put another way, data must not be too abstract for us to read or too academic for us to accept. It must be intelligible to those who can inform communities with BLS seminars, classes, workshops, and training.

By this standard, we can achieve measurable progress in the fight to save lives. We can also improve the lives of others, thanks to how we gather, analyze, and apply against an otherwise deadly foe. Data is our indispensable ally in this effort.

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