Technology, Data Are No Silver Bullets, but Can Help Turn the Tide of the Opioid Epidemic

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The opioid epidemic remains a major issue. While technology and data can be used to help combat the crisis, they are not silver bullets, and there remains a lot of work to do, said speakers at an event hosted by The Hill.

Leveraging technology will be key in the fight against the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States, according to Mark Merritt, president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, which sponsored an event by The Hill on June 20.

During the event, policy makers, researchers, and other stakeholders discussed the role of technology and data in curbing opioid-related overdoses.

“There’s a real solution to the opioid crisis,” Merritt said. It may not be a silver bullet, “but it uses technology that exists in the real world that we can use to save lives.”

During a panel discussion, David Meyers, MD, chief medical officer at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ); Nassima Ait Daoud Tiouririne, MD, of the University of Virginia Health System; and John Rother, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Health Care, explained that there are current technological options available that can help.

Meyers highlighted that mobile technology will help patients struggling with addiction in rural areas to access a trained counselor. Prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) are now able to embed directly into the electronic medical record to allow physicians to more easily monitor prescriptions, Tiouririne added.


However, Rother noted that there needs to be a national policy on mandating e-prescribing, which will not only help with the opioid crisis, but with delivering good healthcare in general.

“It’s about good healthcare, as well as saving lives,” Rother said. “It’s time to move our entire system in the direction of mandatory electronic drug prescribing.”

National data on the opioid epidemic are also important for crafting a response to it. Meyers explained that AHRQ found that, while the picture of the typical person who becomes addicted to opioids is a young man in a city, the reality is that the crisis is happening everywhere, and in most states the person most likely to be hospitalized due to opioid use is a woman. Furthermore, while younger Americans are still the group most at risk, there has been a sharp increase in the number of older Americans hospitalized for opioid use.

Being able to provide that sort of data to state and local policy makers will allow them to create solutions to the specific situations they are facing, Meyers explained.

“It will be many local solutions that address this problem,” he said.

Tiouririne and Rother both explained that opioid addiction is more than just someone taking a pill—there is usually more going on. Take away the opioid, and the patient is left with depression and anxiety, Tiouririne said. Rother added that opioid addiction is the result of a repeated situation of someone putting himself or herself at risk, which provides an opportunity to intervene if technology is used properly to deliver real-time information.

Moving to e-prescriptions and utilizing PDMPs will really help to get the country out in front of the crisis, said Congressman Tom MacArthur, R-New Jersey. But he, also, acknowledged there needed to be more uniformity throughout the country. Currently, some states use their PDMPs really well, but some states barely use it at all.

The challenge is the investment in technology. Congressman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said at the event that while the Trump administration has passed legislation to address the opioid crisis, not nearly enough money has been invested.

But, at least there has been bipartisan support for bills to address the opioid epidemic, he said. The opioid crisis is not just hitting blue areas like New York City or Los Angeles, but red areas like southern Ohio or West Virginia.

Recently, the House passed a number of opioid bills that include features like expanding access to buprenorphine and a requirement that addiction treatment programs funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration fund evidence-based treatments.

However, despite these efforts, a common refrain throughout the event was how much needs to be done to address and reverse the opioid epidemic.

It isn’t uncommon for Ryan to have a conversation with someone that sounds something like this: “Did you hear so-and-so’s brother overdosed?”

“It’s still a major, major issue,” Ryan said.