Industry Voices—Harnessing the power of data to combat the opioid crisis

Hydrocodone opioid pills
The Aetna Foundation has provided Pennsylvania with a $1 million grant to improve data analytics that track opioid misuse. (Getty/smartstock)

Every year, more than 42,000 Americans die from opioid overdoses—that’s 116 deaths per day. In fact, this public health crisis has already claimed more American lives than the Vietnam War in its entirety.

In February, we announced a $6 million nationwide commitment to fight the opioid epidemic across the country, supporting states that have been particularly hard hit.

One of those states is Pennsylvania, where 78% of the state’s counties had overdose death rates higher than the national average and, between 2015 and 2016, opioid-related deaths increased by 44%. In response, Governor Tom Wolfe recently signed a Declaration of Emergency to accelerate the response with an all-hands-on-deck approach.

As part of Governor Wolfe’s Declaration, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania identified a need for improved access to data and built a promising new model for fighting the opioid crisis through a data dashboard. In collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, the Commonwealth will collect more information on overdoses, neonatal abstinence syndrome and opioid prescriptions from more than 150 (out of 171) emergency rooms to better inform response through real-time data.

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The Aetna Foundation is providing Pennsylvania with $1 million in funding to support the dashboard and turbo-charge the Commonwealth’s efforts to quantify and contextualize the impact of the opioid crisis on families, the economy, the criminal justice system and opioid-related diseases. It’s our hope that this data will enable state and local officials, first responders and the public to use real-time information to inform response and education.

We’ve seen firsthand that technology can be a powerful tool to help empower individuals with the information they need to take ownership of their health. Harnessing real-time data will help identify the trends and hot spots in this rapidly expanding epidemic to equip first responders with insights they need to make informed responses.

We understand that each state and community is different, and we are proud to empower the individuals on the ground best able to enact change. By collaborating with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, we are working to create a solution that not only has the potential to save more lives in the state, but also the ability to be scaled across the country.

It is going to take everyone working together to evaluate the epidemic in their area and identify what solutions are needed to make a sustainable change. The work being done to save lives in Pennsylvania is a powerful example of what this change can look like. 

Garth Graham, M.D., is the president of the Aetna Foundation and vice president of Community Health for Aetna.