Complementing Harvard’s Map of the Month series, each week, Map Monday highlights a data visualization that enhances understanding of or helps resolve a critical civic issue.
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 91 Americans died of opioid overdoses each day in 2016—more than the number that died of breast cancer. In response, many policymakers sounded a call to action, focusing on identifying physicians overprescribing painkillers as well as determining the social and geographic factors that increase the likelihood of drug abuse. These insights have allowed governments to head off shady or careless doctors as well as design interventions to help residents overcome addiction.
However, policymakers and researchers have recently diverted their attention to another factor that can influence overdose deaths: the accessibility of pharmacies. While many have long criticized pharmacies for their role in distributing addictive pain pills and enabling addiction, a number of retail chains and independent pharmacies have recently announced their commitment to making overdose-reversal medications like naloxone available to those in need, even without a doctor’s prescription. An analysis by the Chicago Tribune showed a clear relationship between access to pharmacies and prevalence of opioid-related deaths.
With the increasingly important role of pharmacies, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene created a visualization of pharmacy access across the city. Built on a Carto platform with data from OpenStreetMap, the map identifies pharmacies within 15 minutes by foot of each low-cost healthcare center in the city.
Currently, only 33 percent of all New York City pharmacies are located within 15 minutes from low-cost healthcare centers. This paints a picture of a city that will struggle to provide access to naloxone in emergency situations.
This lack of access not only has implications on efforts to respond promptly to opioid overdoses, but also to provide equitable health services more generally. While politicians and the media have focused on the role of insurance in meeting health needs for underserved residents, physical access to medication is also an important factor for those who lack the time or money to travel long distances to pharmacies. And, while independent pharmacies tend to be more accommodating to their clients—for instance providing home delivery services that have proved effective in improving patient adherence—the rise of retail pharmacies may make it harder for people to get the resources they need.
Maps like this one from New York highlight those areas that lack accessible pharmacies and require more public health support. Using this information, cities can design solutions like granting financial incentives—especially to independent pharmacies—to locate their businesses in pharmacy deserts, or incorporating pharmacies into community health centers. In doing so, cities can ensure they have the tools to meet emergency situations like overdoses, as well as provide equitable service to their residents.