More weapons in the battle against opioid addiction: Will they work in your city?

Communities are struggling to prevent more death and devastation from drug addiction. Governments are putting more money into the battle. And new strategies are emerging – GIS mapping and anomaly detection among them. That last one is interesting because it comes from a source not often associated with opioid addiction – the workers’ compensation industry. – Liz Enbysk


Kevin Bingham leads Deloitte Consulting’s practice that helps local governments deal with the opioid crisis. An article he co-authored highlights the widespread impact of opioid abuse and heroin use. Among them:

  • Drug overdose deaths now surpass motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of injury death in the United States, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  • The average number of addicted babies born each year ranges from 100,000 to 375,000, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  • Health care providers wrote 259 million painkiller prescriptions in 2012, enough to give every adult in the United States his or her own bottle of pills, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
  • The number of drug offenders in federal prisons grew 63% between 1998 and 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Drug offenders made up 52% of the federal prison population at year-end 2012.
  • Prescription costs per workers’ compensation claim continue to grow, along with the number of prescriptions per claim and 75% of injured workers who get opioids don’t receive opioid management services, according to the Workers Compensation Research Institute.

A role for data and analytics

In a recent podcast, Bingham explained that he first took notice of the opioid problem while working as an actuary at an insurance company. “I was starting to see claim files showing that there were workers actually passing away from addictions that ultimately were driven by prescriptions [related to] injuries -- and it really got my interest piqued,” he said. “And you want to do everything in your power to help battle this.”

He points to articles suggesting the workers’ compensation industry was ahead of the curve using analytics to advise physicians about the risks of opioid addiction. “You can build models that help you identify who's potentially likely to take an excess amount of opioids over the course of their treatment and try to push them towards options that will be non-opiate alternative, so you avoid that risk of addiction,” he says.

He also talks about using anomaly detection or outlier detection to surface irregularities in opioid prescriptions. For example, a scenario where people are going to an urgent care center from 100 or 150 miles away.  “Analytics are being used to really research if an urgent care center or a physician is acting in a way that would be -- I think the old term is -- a pill mill.”

A “Visual Investigator”
SAS is another company heavily involved in using analytics, pattern recognition and anomaly detection to help government agencies in a range of disciplines, from child safety to drug addiction and opioid abuse. In fact, the company’s new Visual Investigator platform was designed to help professionals who aren’t data scientists or IT experts benefit from analytics tailored to their discipline.

Steve Bennett, director of the global government practice at SAS and a former executive at the Department of Homeland Security, told GCN that the Visual Investigator is akin to a “digital incident wall that automatically performs the difficult cognitive tasks of synthesizing and connecting information.”

GIS still another weapon
Mapping tools are proving useful in the battle against opioid abuse. An article in Health Tech Magazine highlights the situation in Northern Kentucky, where a life was lost to opioid overdose every 40 hours in 2015. Last fall Northern Kentucky Health Department’s Heroin Impact Response Team used geographic information systems (GIS) to launch a story map that pulled in multiple sources of data from a five-year period and overlaid it on a map of the community.

The mapping has proven to be a valuable tool – both in using data to get resources where they are needed and to educate the public.

The North Kentucky team worked with Esri on the mapping project and it appears more government agencies will have a chance to do the same. The spatial analytics company announced in March that it would donate software, valued at $40,500, to winners of National Institute of Justice (NIJ) grants to combat the national opioid and heroin abuse epidemic.

"Esri knows the damage that opioid abuse is doing to our communities, and we are thankful for this opportunity to help find a solution to this devastating epidemic," said John Beck, Esri head of global law enforcement. "The Esri platform collects data in real time, then integrates this data and makes sense of it in interactive maps, making information about drug addiction and crime easier to access, understand and share."

Why AI shows promise
Diane Melley, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs at IBM, believes artificial intelligence (AI) may one day help solve problems like drug addiction. AI combined with human ingenuity, she writes, is helping improve the social good in new and better ways.

“Across social services, education, health, public safety and the environment, progress on social issues is interconnected. By encouraging transparency across agencies and organizations, and connecting the dots – where permitted – across disparate data sources, AI solutions can facilitate collaboration and enable better outcomes,” she suggests.

She notes that solving an issue in one area may help another. “For example,” she says, “improving safety in local parks can encourage more exercise leading to better health. Complex societal issues like mental health treatment, drug addiction, poverty and pollution are better tackled in ecosystems rather than in organizational or data silos.”

States take action
An updated computer system in Michigan allows physicians and other practitioners to access a patient’s prescription history in just a few seconds before prescribing medication.

"The modern system gives prescribers and dispensers state-of-the-art tools to make more informed decisions, intervene earlier and spend additional time with patients and customers,” Michigan Lt. Governor Brian Calley said in a Michigan Live report.

New rules in Ohio, meanwhile, will limit health care professionals to prescribing only seven-day supplies of some painkillers for adults and five-day supplies for children and teens, according to Cleveland.com. There are exceptions for cancer, hospice and certain other patients.

Ohio led the nation in opioid overdose deaths in 2014, Cleveland.com reports, and deaths continue to rise as heroin and fentanyl use increases. State officials anticipate the new limits will reduce the number of opioid doses administered by 109 million.

More on this topic:
Can new devices and strategies help quell the opioid crisis?
Blaming and shaming isn't the solution to drug addiction
How dashboards, analytics and e-prescribing battle opioid addiction

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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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