Dec 06 2017

Why Technology Is Crucial in the Fight Against the Opioid Crisis

Telemedicine and data analytics are among the tools that will help providers and agencies moving forward.

The statistics on opioid use in the U.S. are sobering.

More than 90 Americans die each day after overdosing on opioids. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that three-fourths of all drug overdose deaths are caused by opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin.

The problem has grown so rapidly that in October, the White House declared the ongoing crisis a public health emergency.

To reverse the trend, technology, without a doubt, must be more than a consideration. Some healthcare providers, states and companies are already making headway against the epidemic using tools such as telemedicine and data analytics.

Let’s take a look at some of these efforts.

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Telemedicine's Potential to Quell the Opioid Crisis

In July 2016, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality launched a three-year, $12 million effort to study the impact of medication-assisted treatment (including telemedicine) for opioid addiction in four locations: Colorado, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.

Additionally, telemedicine was cited in the White House announcement as a potential tool to combat the epidemic. While no federal funding to date has been allocated on a nonresearch basis, the statement notes that the declaration “allows for expanded access to telemedicine services, including services involving remote prescribing of medicine commonly used for substance abuse or mental health treatment.”

Officially expanding such access is key. As Politico recently pointed out, one Maryland doctor has had to break the law to provide telemedicine treatments to rural patients in the grip of addiction; the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008 currently prevents doctors from prescribing anti-addiction medications to patients who have not first been evaluated in person.

The American Telemedicine Association agrees, calling the emergency declaration — which potentially opens the door for the Drug Enforcement Agency to update the regulation to allow for such action — “very positive.”

“Three groups of patients will be primary beneficiaries of this important regulatory change: individuals with addictions, children with ADHD and veterans with PTSD,” says Dr. Peter Yellowlees, president of ATA. “They are all commonly treated with a range of controlled substances which, until now, have not been able to be prescribed by telemedicine.”

Analyzing Trends and Predicting Future Behavior

Data analytics tools also are being deployed. For instance, the state of Indiana, Wired reports, worked with software companies like SAP and Tableau to build a database and data visualization tools that enable agencies to access information on trends, including drug arrests, overdose-related ambulance calls and more

And in May, IBM formed a partnership with global health firm MAP Health Management to use Watson Analytics to analyze doctors’ handwriting and real-time data from smart devices, such as wearables, in conjunction with patient risk models to identify patients most likely to relapse. Aetna Behavioral Health plans to roll out the tool in the next few months.

A Forward Look at Health IT's Role in Regulating Opioids

Such efforts are only the beginning of a long journey. Telemedicine, data analytics and other tools can help providers and agencies provide treatment to patients and stay informed about trends.

Technology must play a key role in fighting the opioid crisis.

This article is part of HealthTech’s MonITor blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #WellnessIT hashtag.

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