How a data ecosystem can quell the opioid crisis
A data infrastructure that tracks drug use trends and drug market activity can inform policy and program decisions aimed at curbing the opioid crisis.
The nation is lacking comprehensive data on the number of individuals actively using drugs and those with substance use disorders, according to a report published last week.
These data points are crucial for policymakers to understand the scope of the opioid crisis in their communities, which is estimated to have caused more than 80,000 overdose deaths in 2021, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“Understanding the nature of the opioid ecosystem is a necessary step for decision-makers seeking to continue to address the crisis,” researchers said in a report from RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. “To craft sound policies, … [decision-makers] need reliable information to understand how policies interact and what effects of the interaction are likely to be.”
Data could help defend communities against the growing opioid crisis. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the rate of opioid-related deaths increased from 5 per 100,000 people in 2010 to 42.4 per 100,000 in 2020, researchers reported on The Conversation. A closer look at the data indicated that the rise in substance use could be linked to stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. With these insights, officials could then evaluate if funds distributed to address the effects of social isolation were effective.
To learn how opioids and other illegal substances permeate a community, officials should focus data collection efforts on people using drugs, drug consumption trends and drug markets. Otherwise, a lack of credible data “hampers policymakers’ ability to allocate resources efficiently, monitor changes in drug markets and conduct rigorous policy evaluations,” the RAND report stated.
When governments do have opioid-related data ready, they can prepare more effective responses. Michigan’s Substance Use Vulnerability Index, for example, helps officials allocate funds to vulnerable communities to support treatment and preventative measures. In West Virginia, public health officials use a predictive model to anticipate when and where overdoses may occur days in advance.
To further improve data sharing and monitoring capabilities, the report suggested law enforcement agencies share administrative data on opioid use with key stakeholders such as researchers. Public health agencies could also monitor wastewater to provide real-time insights on drug consumption and potentially detect the emergence of new psychoactive substances.
Previous data sharing initiatives such as the Justice Department’s Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program, which operated from 1998 to 2003 and used survey responses and urinalyses from arrestees in 35 cities to estimate the drug-use prevalence, should be revived to foster a government- and nationwide data repository on drugs.
In the meantime, the report urged state and local governments to leverage existing open-data sources such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the Treatment Episode Data Set and the Multiple Cause of Death database.
Government must approach the opioid crisis as an ecosystem, coordinating efforts among first responders, medical care providers, income support and homelessness services, the criminal justice system and other key players, according to the report.
“Moving away from siloed thinking and adopting an ecosystem approach will help stem the current tide of addiction and overdose deaths … [and] help mitigate the harmful consequences of future drug problems,” the report stated.
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