How Data Can Help in the Fight Against the Opioid Epidemic in the United States

Joshua New November 18, 2019
November 18, 2019
The maxim “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” has never been so relevant. The failure to effectively leverage data has undoubtedly cost many lives and caused severe social and economic damage to communities ravaged by opioid addiction.

The United States is in the midst of an opioid epidemic 20 years in the making. From 1999 to 2017, nearly 400,000 people died from overdosing on prescription or illicit opioids. The opioid epidemic shows little signs of slowing down: in 2018, 10.3 million people aged 12 and older have misused opioids in the United States. And, on average, 130 Americans die every day from overdosing on opioids. In addition to the loss of life and immeasurable social cost, the economic cost of the epidemic is severe, amounting to an estimated minimum of $631 billion from 2015 to 2018 due to factors such as health services for people abusing opioids, family assistance programs, criminal justice activity, and lost productivity.

One of the most pernicious obstacles in the fight against the opioid epidemic is that, until relatively recently, it was difficult to measure the epidemic in any comprehensive capacity beyond such high-level statistics. A lack of granular data and authorities’ inability to use data to inform response efforts allowed the epidemic to grow to devastating proportions. The maxim “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” has never been so relevant, and this failure to effectively leverage data has undoubtedly cost many lives and caused severe social and economic damage to communities ravaged by opioid addiction, with authorities limited in their ability to fight back.

Many factors contributed to the opioid epidemic, including healthcare providers not fully understanding the potential ramifications of prescribing opioids, socioeconomic conditions that make addiction more likely, and drug distributors turning a blind eye to likely criminal behavior, such as pharmacy workers illegally selling opioids on the black market. Data will not be able to solve these problems, but it can make public health officials and other stakeholders more effective at responding to them. Fortunately, recent efforts to better leverage data in the fight against the opioid epidemic have demonstrated the potential for data to be an invaluable and effective tool to inform decision-making and guide response efforts. Policymakers should aggressively pursue more data-driven strategies to combat the opioid epidemic while learning from past mistakes that helped contribute to the epidemic to prevent similar situations in the future.

The scope of this paper is limited to opportunities to better leverage data to help address problems primarily related to the abuse of prescription opioids, rather than the abuse of illicitly manufactured opioids such as heroin and fentanyl. While these issues may overlap, such as when a person develops an opioid use disorder from prescribed opioids and then seeks heroin when they are unable to obtain more from their doctor, the opportunities to address the abuse of prescription opioids are more clear-cut.

How Data Can Help in the Fight Against the Opioid Epidemic in the United States