Drug overdose deaths have more than tripled in the past seven years with the annual record of 12,989 deaths in 2015.
What Sparked Today’s Epidemic?
In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies promised medical professionals that opioid pain relievers were not addictive, and as a result, Oxycontin was introduced to the pharmaceutical market. By 1996, the drug was prescribed to medical patients on an unprecedented scale, and more than 200,000 people in the United States have died from overdoses of prescription painkillers since. This number doesn’t include individuals who became addicted to Oxycontin and overdosed on a cheaper street drug like heroin, nor does it measure the effects of dangerous synthetic opioids like fentanyl. First Responders have been on the front lines of the opioid crisis for years, and law enforcement, firefighters, and other emergency professionals are often called upon to save the lives of people who have overdosed.
In October, the United States’ government declared the Opioid Epidemic, which kills over 142 people a day nationwide, a Public Health Emergency. “No part of our society, not young or old, not rich or poor, has been spared this drug addiction and this horrible, horrible situation that’s taken place with opioids,” President Donald Trump said during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House following the announcement. “This was an idea I had, where if we can teach young people just not to take drugs. It’s really, really easy not to take them. We are going to overcome addiction in America.
The order doesn’t constitute a national emergency, which would mean greater access to resources and funds, but it’s an important step. It will bring telemedicine (the ability to diagnose and treat patients remotely) to rural areas, help prioritize legislation related to the crisis, and redistribute federal grants to address underfunded areas impacted by opioids.There are pros and cons to both declarations, and after over a decade of the drug-related crisis, the announcement is an overdue step from legislators.
The NY Times compiled a preliminary set of data showing drug overdose deaths rising 19% over the recorded 52,404 in 2015 – hitting Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Maine the hardest. Ohio has seen a 25% increase in deaths-by-overdose since 2016. The introduction of synthetic opioids like fentanyl is largely responsible for the uptick in overdose reports and opioid-related deaths in recent years. The drug is creating a public health emergency that first responders are struggling to manage in their communities. In Dayton, Ohio, firefighters told NBC News that the numbers of overdoses have increased exponentially in just the past year. In 2016, a total of 346 overdose deaths were reported in Ohio’s Montgomery County. In 2017, over 500 deaths have already been reported. Firefighters and paramedics used to respond to one or two overdose situations every few weeks but now deal with multiple reports every shift.
The most important step toward curtailing the opioid crisis will be greater access to addiction treatment and rehabilitation centers. These programs are critical for helping those impacted by the crisis, but the road to recovery for the United States will be complex. This epidemic is not an isolated issue and many have seen the personal effects of the destruction of opioid addiction.
In the next couple of years, congressional leaders, state and local governments, and health organizations will work to expand treatment efforts and other initiatives, such as the availability of opiate antidote naloxone for those from low-income backgrounds. These steps would save innumerable lives
Combating the Crisis
In order to solve the opioid crisis, the United States requires a multi-faceted approach. The supply of these deadly drugs must be curbed, both from the pharmaceutical industry and illegal sources that deal in heroin and synthetic opioids. Treatment for people who already struggle with addiction must be comprehensive and easily accessible.
Research has proven that medication-based treatment is effective for long-term drug use disorders, and medications like buprenorphine need to be made available on a larger scale. There’s also a lack of treatment centers. When patients go to a hospital seeking help, they can be put on a waiting list for over three weeks. In many of these cases the need for treatment is urgent, and long wait-times and the general expenses of wellness centers make them unavailable to low-income communities.
Programs that expand treatment have already seen success in many areas. Some communities and states are being recognized for their efforts to take action to stop the epidemic. For example, Gloucester MA introduced its ANGEL program in 2015. The ANGEL program encourages addicts to go to local police stations to seek help for their addiction and without punishment for having drugs on their person or in their possession.
Communities nationwide are also embracing a more reactive solution by providing easy and fast access to naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan. Naloxone works as a direct antagonist to opioids. It reverses the depressive effects of opioids on the respiratory and central nervous systems quickly and effectively. In some communities, first responders are even providing training in naloxone rescue kits. This will allow for a faster, more proactive response in communities where overdose rates are rapidly increasing.
The scale of the opioid crisis has inspired public health and emergency managers to collaborate with the tech industry. In 2014, Ohio reported more Opioid-related overdoses and deaths than any other state, and these numbers have risen exponentially in the years since. The state has allocated considerable funds toward addiction treatment, prevention, and specialized law enforcement to little result. The numbers continue to rise, and authorities are seeking alternative solutions, like modern technology.
Ohio is exploring these potential options, which include medical advancements like implanted, non-opioid pain treatments and electric peripheral nerve stimulation for pain relief. While both of these inventions are still in trial phases, they could prevent overprescription of opioids like Oxycontin in the future. The aforementioned deceptive claims by pharmaceutical companies about the addictiveness of opioids was a huge impetus for the epidemic in Ohio.
These alternatives, while exciting, don’t account for the thousands already addicted to opioids in Ohio, and in other states as well. There are numerous avenues for which tech could help address this crisis in the United States. Prescription monitoring systems that collect, monitor, and analyze prescriptions submitted by pharmacies and doctors, and notifies authorities of individuals who are abusing or even misusing painkillers. This program has worked, but most prescriptions are still written by hand and it doesn’t account for illegal drug use.
Data is now being used to address a variety of opioid-response issues. State and local Health Departments are using data to spot patterns in drug abuse and intervene in areas experiencing an opioid outbreak before it gets worse. Emergency notification systems and safety profiles can improve response in scenarios such as overdose, where every moment counts. A safety profile enables families to sign up and provide additional information that displays if they ever dial 9-1-1. A family member aware of a loved one’s history of drug abuse can note the addiction in their Safety Profile. This data informs emergency responders before they arrive at the scene, allowing them to provide the appropriate medical care to the individual more quickly. These technologies and the use of analytics and data can help address areas already experiencing an uptick in opioid addiction, and will help minimize the damage the drug is doing in these communities.
There is no simple solution to the opioid epidemic we face today However, modern technology can help combat the crisis. Tech companies can continue to work with communities by developing innovative solutions that better protect victims and first responders.