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Data Key to Pennsylvania’s Drop in Opioid-Related Fatalities

The state is reporting an 18 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths, attributing it in part to data work such as logging calls to support hotlines and using the findings to facilitate efficient resource distribution.

Shutterstock/Darwin Brandis
Pennsylvania officials say they have seen an 18 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths statewide, and a key part of the drop has been efficiently sharing data among agencies. 

To be specific, in 2017 roughly 5,500 people in Pennsylvania died from causes related to opioid use. In 2018, that number fell to about 4,500, according to information from the state. This decrease in opioid overdoses is the product of a mosaic of work across the state. 

Gov. Tom Wolf declared what is essentially a rolling state of emergency in relation to the opioid crisis, signing the eighth renewal of Pennsylvania’s Opioid Disaster Declaration this week. That ongoing declaration has been fueled by $141 million in federal funding, and it has entailed work like distributing 6,800 doses of the anti-opioid drug naloxone, operating a program that monitors prescriptions to reduce prescription pill availability and launching a massive public health awareness campaigning. In addition, the state has formed an Opioid Command Center that brings together 17 different agencies.

The work also includes an extensive opioid data dashboard that collects important information from disparate state agencies and disseminates in a way that is useful and easy to read. All of these actions must be taken as a whole, of course. Also, some national experts point out that part of the reason Pennsylvania has seen such a massive decrease is that the situation there had grown so dire. 

Still, in talking to stakeholders about Pennsylvania's approach to opioid data, a picture has emerged of a crucial effort that can and should be replicated in other states.

Pennsylvania’s Opioid Data Dashboard

At the center of Pennsylvania using data to tackle the opioid crisis is the state’s opioid data dashboard.

The dashboard first went live in the summer of 2018, before a major overhaul this year. Powered by the Tyler Technologies’ solution Socrata, the dashboard has the same aim as most state data work — to take existing information from agencies in the government, compile it in one place and disseminate in a way that makes it easier to read.

Pennsylvania CIO John MacMillan emphasized the benefits this can have for decision-makers and others in the state government.

“When we’re able to raise awareness of what we can do and visualize it,” MacMillan said, “we’re able to think about new ideas to innovate and change the way we deliver services as a result.”

Carolyn Byrnes is a special advisor to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health, and in that capacity she led the project to overhaul the dashboard after its initial launch. A key component of this was a section for community impact, which shows the effects opioid use and troubles related to it can have on everything from families to the economy to the criminal justice system.

Through the dashboard, stakeholders and anyone else can easily find info about pregnant women whose babies are born with neonatal absence syndrome, which is a disorder that stems from opioid use during pregnancy, or the numbers of children removed from homes where opioid use is a factor.

Every time the dashboard launches a new page, Byrnes presents it to state leadership. When there’s new data added, she gives a presentation at the command center, and she meets quarterly with all of the involved data owners. That last part is key, because none of the data is new. It is simply information that agencies throughout the state already had. What’s new is that they have now worked to get it all in the same place.

“The collaborative piece to it is very important,” Byrnes said. “Having the command center and the governor’s focus on opioids is a real reason why we’re able to de-silo all of this data and bring things together.” 

It is through this effort, Byrnes said, that decision-makers were able to do things like analyze when overdoses spike and get naloxone ready to be distributed at those times. Moving forward, the dashboard will continue to evolve, with plans calling for more information to be released about the impact on the economy, such as lost lifetime productivity and lost lifetime wages for those who have died due to overdose. 

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania is one of many states engaged in such work, with experts saying they expect data use by state government to become an increasingly important tool in combating the opioid crisis.

‘All States Are Keenly Aware of the Importance of Using Data’

While Pennsylvania has made great strides of late, many states have been incorporating data into their efforts to combat the opioid crisis for some time.

“All states are keenly aware of the importance of using data,” said Regina LaBelle, an expert on addiction and public policy within Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. “I think they vary in terms of how robust their data sources are and how their data sources are shared.”

LaBelle said plainly that effective use of data related to this matter depends on the state government's ability to foster cross-agency cooperation. LaBelle also noted for states looking to replicate successful work, or to simply make their existing efforts more robust, that the National Governors Association has built a set of best practices over the years and also offers technical assistance.

LaBelle praised Pennsylvania for moving in the right direction, while also pointing to some other states that have used data to drive real results in battling the opioid crisis. Massachusetts’ Chapter 55 Overdose Report has helped that state pinpoint the most at-risk communities for opioid struggles, while Rhode Island used data to determine that recently paroled individuals were most at-risk for an overdose. This led Rhode Island to divert more resources into treating the incarcerated for opioid addiction. The Rhode Island program’s success, LaBelle said, has led to nearly every state in New England duplicating it.

These are just a few examples of the work being done. In nearly every state, however, these sorts of use-cases for shared data related to the opioid crisis are in early stages, with much work remaining. 

Jeremiah Lindemann, who is a solutions engineer for the gov tech data company Esri, said that while he believes the war is mostly being fought at the community level, state and federal support is still important, both in terms of funding and helping to create a more accurate informational picture of what’s happening. 

And while some states are seeing new successes by using data, this remains a battle that is far from won. 

“It’s good that some deaths have gone down,” Lindemann said, “but they’ve not gone down at the rate they were going up. It’s still a really big problem.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.