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By Eric Bosco

Americans are dying at an unprecedented rate from opiate drug poisoning -- the national average stands at 78 fatal overdoses per day. Heroin and prescription painkillers are killing more people per year than car accidents, a signal that the epidemic has reached historic proportions.

Forced to grapple with the ravaging effects of drug addiction and overdose in their communities, cities, counties, and states across the country are turning to data analytics and mapping to help alleviate the human toll and better direct critical resources to address the epidemic. Increasingly, the focus has shifted to tracking prescription drug providers, as it is further understood that the road to addiction and overdose can start with an innocent prescription filled for chronic pain or post-surgery -- the CDC estimates at least half of all fatal overdoses involve a prescription opiate.

Interactive map serves as dynamic nationwide resource on epidemic

The National Association of Counties released an interactive map this summer that shows the staggering amount of overdoses nationwide and tracks opiate providers and filled prescriptions. The map, created by Esri, allows users to hone in on a specific county and compare numbers against national averages. The Pacific Northwest, for instance, has a higher-than-average rate of opiate prescriptions. The map also highlights individual counties that have particularly high rates of prescribing opiates. In Red Lake County, Minnesota, for example, 37 percent of the total annual prescriptions filled in the county are for opiates, considerably higher than the 5 percent state average for Minnesota.

The interactive map also confirms one of the insights that has defined the present drug epidemic: overdose and addiction are no longer a problem confined to the inner city. Some of the highest rates of overdose, according to the map, are seen across Appalachia; West Virginia currently has the highest rate of overdose in the country. And places from Knoxville to Cincinnati and Salt Lake City are pinpointed with thick red circles on the map, signaling the density of fatal overdoses in those locations and the widespread reach of the epidemic.

Harnessing data to pinpoint resource allocation

Prescription drug monitoring programs to track opiate prescriptions and attempt to prevent overprescribing have existed in states across the country for several years, but the present epidemic suggests that tactic alone is not enough. Combining the power of data mapping with predictive analytics, states and counties are now starting to identify “hotspot” neighborhoods in the most immediate need of resources and predict where the next swath of overdoses may happen. In January, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health began using predictive analytics to foresee and prevent future deaths. Using painkiller prescription and overdose data in combination with specifically designed algorithms, the state can more quickly and effectively allocate critical resources.

Alleghany County in Pennsylvania has incorporated data from a variety of departments including the justice and mental health systems to develop a powerful strategy to target specific neighborhoods burdened by opiate overdose and addiction. The county can now track patterns resulting from analysis of cross-departmental data, dating from 2008 to 2014, to draw critical conclusions. This kind of analysis allows the county to recognize that at least 45 percent of fatal overdose victims during the eight-year period had a painkiller prescription filled within 90 days of their death. Another startling trend showed that 54 fatal overdoses over the eight years happened within a 30-day window of the victim’s release from the Alleghany County jail.

Getting people the help they need

The data-driven conclusions and trends shown by the Esri map and the neighborhood-level strategies in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania all drive one point home: help needs to be in the hands of those most at risk of overdosing. Treatment and prevention education are the only realistic solutions to the historic epidemic, and data mapping and predictive analytics represent powerful tools in government’s outreach toolbox. These kinds of strategies, in combination with the opening of state resources for easy public navigation in ways like the state of Virginia’s website and app, are sure to mark local, state, and federal policy for the duration of the opiate crisis. 

About the Author

Eric Bosco

Eric Bosco is a Research Assistant and Writer for the Ash Center’s Civic Analytics Network. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Eric worked as a journalist and research assistant with the Boston Globe Spotlight Team and as a staff writer at a regional newspaper in southern Massachusetts. As an undergraduate journalism student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, his investigative reporting for the Globe on the university’s controversial confidential informant program earned him appearances on national television and radio.

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