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Using Real-Time Data to Fight Opioid Overdoses


"We need real-time data...and unless we are looking at that non-fatal overdose day, we won’t bring down fatalities."

Healthcare experts often complain that data silos, legacy technology, and a lack of timely data all stand in the way of better population health programs and improved outcomes. As it turns out, law enforcement agencies face the same problems, too, when it comes to fighting the opioid crisis.

Law enforcement, first responders, and treatment professionals rarely have access to the same overdose data, Jeff Beeson (pictured) said at a Department of Health and Human Services symposium about data-driven solutions to the opioid crisis. Not only that, the data that they have is often retrospective, looking back at a month or more’s worth of drug overdoses in a given county—and often only the fatal ones.

Beeson is Deputy Director of the Washington/Baltimore area branch of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program. HIDTA stems from Reagan-era War on Drugs initiatives to combine federal and funding and resources with state and local law enforcement agencies to track drug distribution. As the misuse of prescription opioids has led to an uptick in illegal heroin and fentanyl use—often in combination—the need to track the movement of those drugs has taken on an even greater urgency for public health officials.

“We need real-time data,” Beeson said, and, “Unless we are looking at that non-fatal overdose day, we won’t bring down fatalities.”

By designing a system in which first responders could all be given the same data, in real time, about all overdoses in the area, he explained that they could save lives by preparing for overdose spikes that often occur when a particularly powerful or tainted batch of narcotics pours in.

The solution that HIDTA began piloting last year is called the ODMAP. The simple portal allows first responders to instantly enter the location of an overdose, whether Naloxone was administered, and whether the incident resulted in a fatality. It can be accessed through a mobile device or via the computer aided dispatch (CAD) system in patrol cars and emergency vehicles.

It was important that the interface (pictured right) be simple and user-friendly, Beeson said, because of the wide variation in tech familiary among law enforcement. As savvy as many young first responders are likely to be, the Sheriff of a small town in the West Virginia panhandle (his HIDTA region includes the two easternmost counties of that state) is just as likely to carry a Motorola flip phone.

The system can pool overdose data into reports that detect trends and identify spikes. When a spike is detected, an automated alert is dispatched to important law enforcement and health leaders in the region, at any time of day.

Finding when and where overdoses typically occur in an area can help local agencies allocate resources, and the ability to detect spikes can help surrounding areas prepare for the dangerous new batch. It also allows law enforcement to follow the movement of drugs.

The program is only a year old, but Beeson said ODMAP was already expanding his agency's capabilities. On one occasion, they were able to track a wave of overdoses as it marched down from northern Baltimore into the city's southern suburbs and then out into West Virginia. On another, the system helped authorities pinpoint where and when dealers were selling heroin based on nearby overdoses, allowing them to halt the criminal operation.

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