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5 Underused Tech Weapons in the Fight Against the Opioid Epidemic


Some healthcare organizations leverage data to combat addiction, but the practice must expand, argues Surescripts.

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Big data and electronic health tools show great promise in fighting the opioid crisis, but too few healthcare organizations are taking advantage of these high-tech weapons, according to a new report (PDF) from the digital prescription company Surescripts.

Although it has a business interest in expanding the use of digital healthcare technologies, Surescripts supports its case with hard numbers—and some common sense. It’s no secret that health systems and small providers across the US have struggled to turn patient health data from electronic medical records (EMR) into actionable data, and it’s simple to see how this problem extends to more systemic efforts, comprising the actions of many individual stakeholders, to battle a public health crisis. What’s more, if these tech-driven initiatives were more widespread, the positive effects would be clear, as noted in this Healthcare Analytics News™ cover story.

The Surescripts report—written by Paul Uhrig, the company’s chief administrative, legal, and privacy officer—marks 2 areas that are ripe for health-tech intervention: drug diversion and ensuring that patients in need may still access opioids. (Again, healthcare and government organizations are using data and all things digital to target these precise problems but in a limited capacity. The federal government, for instance, has called for more data to bolster CMS’s campaign against opioid abuse.)

>> READ: Rise of the Anti-Opioid Algorithm

“Technology can help fight the opioid epidemic, but only when it’s deployed and used in the course of delivering care,” Uhrig said. “In its absence, clinicians and prescribers are robbed of crucial insights and forced to forage for data manually, trying to make optimal care decisions and deliver adequate pain management without the best intelligence to do so.”

But Uhrig and Surescripts go on to offer 5 ideas on how data and technology can punch back against the opioid epidemic while still helping patients who need the drugs. Each of these points gets at a product offered by Surescripts, so proceed with whichever level of skepticism you see fit but understand that this list echoes ideas that have also been touted by insurers, health systems, pharmacies, pharma, state and federal government agencies, and law enforcement.

1. Medication History

Clinicians need a patient’s medication history at the point of care, in real time, before prescribing any drug, according to Surescripts. That is, of course, especially true when it comes to opioids. Would any sane physician dole out opioids to a known heroin addict? Probably not. But warning signs of substance abuse might often be subtler, a risk that grows across a given health system. One question that Surescripts said is worth considering: “Have they been prescribed opioids multiple times?”

2. Electronic Medical Records

Patients who are seeking pain relief—either legitimately or not—might have gone elsewhere before winding up in your health system. A sweeping record locator and exchange enables prescribers to examine all existing medical records, “so they can quickly identify suspicious care patterns,” according to Surescripts. Conversely, greater interoperability may help make the case for patients who genuinely need pain medications.

3. Electronic Prescribing

Digital prescriptions hamper paper fraud, a measurable problem in the opioid crisis, according to Surescripts. Electronic prescribing allows for the tracking and secure delivery of prescriptions for controlled substances, and technology to cancel prescriptions also exists. “The electronic nature of the prescription also helps increase patient safety and medication adherence while impeding the fraud and abuse that more easily occurs with paper counterparts,” Uhrig wrote.

4. Provider Communications

Here’s a simple one: Prescribers who suspect a patient is either abusing opioids or trying to illegitimately obtain them can use built-in EMR communications systems to correspond with clinicians who previously treated that individual.

5. Medication Adherence Insights

And here’s an obvious one: Real-time alerts can help clinicians understand how, exactly, a patient is consuming medications. This connection with the pharmacist shines a light on abnormal filling behavior and even potentially harmful medication cocktails. If a patient isn’t taking the correct dose, they might be on the path to trouble.

Despite these innovative paths, healthcare is only beginning to adopt cutting-edge technologies in its push against opioids. For example, just 21% of controlled substances are electronically prescribed, compared to 90% of all other drugs, according to Surescripts. Lawmakers are taking action, the report notes, to widen the reach of this technology, and Surescripts has seen greater levels of such activity across its channels, a sign that it considers encouraging.

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