Remember the War on Drugs declared back in 1971? It has never ended. Instead, new drugs have emerged and, with them, new forms of abuse. Technologies like medical computers, which already have been in use, continue to play major roles. Originally used to simply house medical data, both the public and private sectors are increasingly turning to them for rich sources of data to shape drug use legislations to actively track the drug users themselves.   

The opioid overdose crisis is today’s latest battle. As your guide in it, we go into more detail on the new front: 

  • The new drugs involved.
  • The three waves involving opioids that have hit since 1999. 
  • How three technologies – electronic medical records, telehealth, and artificial intelligence, are working with medical computers to combat this crisis

How Did the Opioid Overdose Crisis Started

Opioids are a class of drugs. Sometimes called narcotics, opioids include: 

  • Pain relievers that are legally available by prescription. Examples: oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine.
  • Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
  • Illegal drug heroin.

What is now known as the “Opioid Overdose Crisis” started in the 1990s and can be broken down into three distinct waves.

The first wave, beginning in the mid-1990s, saw the increased prescription of opioids, especially OxyContin. Overdose deaths from these painkillers rose rapidly. 

The second wave began in 2010. Addicts, blocked from legal prescriptions due to increasing government response to the overdose deaths, turned to heroin to sate their addictions. 

2013 marks the third wave as illicitly manufactured fentanyl found its way to addicts through combinations with heroin, counterfeit pills, and cocaine. 

Though not a wave, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 saw a spike in overdose deaths. The lockdowns increased feelings of isolation among addicts as well as made it near impossible to get necessary treatment.

How Many People Have Died From Opioids Overdose 

The United States officially declared the opioid overdose crisis to be a public health crisis in 2017. More than a million people have died of drug overdoses over the past 20 years per the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Worse, opioid overdose makes up an increasing number of those fatalities. From 2020 to 2021 alone, opioid overdoses deaths went up from around 69,000 to 81,020. That is an increase of more than 17 percent.

Most opioid deaths are adults. However, children have also perished due to opioid poisoning especially from fentanyl and similar synthetic opioids. Per the CDC, nearly 9,000 children and adolescents died between 1999 and 2016 through such drugs.  

The overdose crisis affects each state differently. Kentucky has some of the highest prescription rates in the country, with around 87 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. Unsurprisingly, it has one of the highest death rates by opioid overdose in the nation. And Missouri, is among the top 10 states with the highest drug arrests per capita. This may be partially due to the fact that the state, at the time of this post, does not have any drug prescription monitoring laws. This greatly increases the chances of overdoses and opioid-related deaths. 

Late last month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an over-the-counter version of Narcan, a medication normally used to treat opioid overdose. Said Dr. Robert Califf, commission of the FDA: 

“The FDA remains committed to addressing the evolving complexities of the overdose crisis. As part of this work, the agency has used its regulatory authority to facilitate greater access to naloxone by encouraging the development of and approving an over-the-counter naloxone product to address the dire public health need.

“Today’s approval of OTC naloxone nasal spray will help improve access to naloxone, increase the number of locations where it’s available and help reduce opioid overdose deaths throughout the country. We encourage the manufacturer to make accessibility to the product a priority by making it available as soon as possible and at an affordable price.”

How to Stop Opioid Addiction

So what is being done in this latest battle against drug abuse? In the US, the various levels of government are developing policies to fight the opioid overdose crisis. The availability of Narcan as an over-the-counter drug, which was mentioned earlier, is an example of response from the public sector. The healthcare industry, representing the private sector, is more closely reviewing pain medication requests from its providers as one of its policy changes.

Both sectors are turning to increasing use of technology for aid. 

Medical clinics and hospitals are looking to link up their electronic healthcare systems (EHR) to prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP). These are electronic databases that track controlled substance prescriptions throughout a state. This way, providers can easily pull up and view a patient’s prescription history, refill requests, previous prescribers, and their pharmacies on their medical tablets or similar systems. The hope is that this makes it easier to identify opioid use disorder and abuse. Providers can also note patients who are “opioid naive” (that is, those who aren’t taking such medications regularly) and are in distress may be referred to alternate pain management programs. This way, there’s less chance for addiction and overdose. Diversion of controlled substances or drug diversion could also be spotted more quickly with such techniques. 

Telehealth is also being looked at to deal with opioid abuse. Patients with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) can connect remotely with providers to get help dealing with their condition and, hopefully, get weaned off from it. One study on telehealth claims post-COVID showed psychiatric services as the primary reason followed by SUD treatment.  

Finally, artificial intelligence (AI) is being looked at to rapidly identify substances that caused overdose deaths. Researchers for UCLA used AI and related tools like machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) to analyze and sort nearly 35,500 death records for all of 2020 from Connecticut as well as several US counties. The results on deaths caused by drugs and their breakdown nearly matched a similar CDC study. However, the UCLA study took around three weeks to compile from the records while a similar CDC report took four months.

Dr. David Goodman-Meza, who was the lead to the study stated: “The overdose crisis in America is the number one cause of death in young adults, but we don’t know the actual number of overdose deaths until months after the fact. We also don’t know the number of overdoses in our communities, as rapidly released data is only available at the state level, at best. We need systems that get this data out fast and at a local level so public health can respond. Machine learning and natural language processing can help bridge this gap.” 

Closing Thoughts

The opioid overdose crisis has seen a dramatic rise in deaths by drug overdose since 1999, with many due to opioids being the cause. The US government has declared it a public health crisis, and both the public and private sector are turning to technology like telehealth and AI to stem the current wave. 

Contact an expert at Cybernet if you’re interested in how medical computers and tablets can assist your medical clinics and hospitals’ policies in putting an end to death by drug overdose.