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Big Data and the Opioid Crisis

Opioids have come into focus in recent years as an increasing public safety issue. The rates of addictions are rising, and so are the numbers of opioid overdose-related fatalities. Blame for the current state of affairs is being placed at the feet of pharmaceutical companies who, according to some researchers and journalists, heavily marketed powerful opioid medications while touting them as not addictive and safe for widespread prescription.

We’re going to discuss how two major components of big data can help with resolving the opioid crisis:

  • Using behavioral analytics to determine risk factors with patients.
  • Using data sets to track prescriptions and outcomes in order to hold a higher standard of accountability, and reduce unnecessary prescriptions.

What Created the Crisis?

Public health officials have found that in the years since the 1990s, prescriptions of opioids increased dramatically, and that the abuse of prescription drugs is a major factor contributing to opioid addiction. The prescription of powerful opioids begins a dependence, but when doctors are unwilling to continue to give opioids to the patient in large quantities, they then turn to illegal drugs. Often, addicts get started when they receive prescription opioids for free from friends or family members who are using them.

Why Are Opioids so Dangerous?

One major issue with opioids that makes them so dangerous is that the body builds tolerance to them, which means that more drugs are required to give a user the high or relief they’re looking for. As people begin to abuse opioids in greater amounts and often start seeking more powerful controlled substances, they run a much higher risk of hypoxia, which occurs when the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen. Thus death from overdose becomes more likely.

Solutions From Big Data: Behavioral Analytics

One of the biggest issues with opioid addiction is that people can develop addictions while on completely legitimate prescriptions, for the purposes of handling pain, mental illness, or surgery recovery. On the other hand, opioids are not guaranteed to cause addiction. Pinpointing people who might be likely to develop an addiction is a difficult task, and this is where big data comes in.

One way to help manage the crisis is to identify and manage risk factors for individuals. One relatively clear risk factor is the number of procedures. The more operations and medical conditions someone has that include an opioid prescription during recovery, the more likely they are to become addicted.

It becomes more complicated, however. According to David Hom, an expert in health analytics, prescriptions are often hidden from plain view, and patients with different conditions have different risk factors when it comes to using opioids or recovering from addiction. Combining medical records with patient behaviour and history to determine risk factor using big data tools, Hom argues, is one of the best ways to fight the epidemic.

Solutions From Big Data: Accountability

Over-prescription of opioids has been a major factor contributing to the current state of affairs. It remains to be seen how far the ethical grey area extends, but it’s clear that one way to fight the crisis is to reduce the number of prescriptions. In 2013 a whistleblower went to the department of justice about a doctor who was intentionally misdiagnosing and under-dosing patients. During the following investigation, big data was used to corroborate the whistleblower’s statements and to discover the extent of the fraud committed by the doctor. Data analytics played a major role in the multi-agency investigation and allowed the government to ascertain the extent of the damage caused by the doctor.

This isn’t to suggest that all doctors are complicit, or even that all doctors who prescribe opioids should be investigated in a criminal fashion. It is clear, however, that we may be able to use data analytics to support doctors and empower them to make more informed decisions about when to make prescriptions for opioids, considering how dangerous we now know them to be.

Companies and governments are already using big data to do some of these things, and the potential only grows as we gather better information and make better decisions. Big data can be used to eliminate prescription gaps and help agencies, hospitals, doctors, and police share information. Arming health officials as well as doctors and police with information seems to be one of the best ways forward in putting an end to the national tragedy of opioid abuse.

About the Author

Avery Phillips is a freelance human based out of the beautiful Treasure Valley. She loves all things in nature, especially humans. Leave a comment down below or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or comments.

 

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