Social Programs

Can we beat the opioid epidemic using artificial intelligence?

A complex and tragic epidemic

When there is a natural disaster, explosion or virus with the potential to cause the loss of thousands of lives in the U.S., we are quick to respond and then analyze causal issues contributing to the disaster. Our government and private partner agencies rally together and develop a plan to understand and mitigate future disasters, identify tasks to address the contributing factors and put in place plans and teams to carry out the actions.

Some emerging epidemics are harder to recognize, and even more challenging to address. The prescription opioid addiction problem has morphed into a complex epidemic that includes heroin and synthetic drugs from an expanding variety of networks in the U.S. and abroad. Some drugs are so deadly that often first responders are dealing with multiple overdose deaths of people of all ages and from all walks of life within minutes or hours.

The troubling reality of the opioid crisis

The public has long assumed opioid addiction is concentrated in areas of high poverty. The troubling reality is that nonmedical prescription drug usage and overdose rates are highest in the middle income and developed countries. Nonmedical prescription opioid use has increased at alarming rates among millennials, college and teenagers, and the prime age workforce regardless of race or ethnicity.

In Norway, Greece, Denmark and the U.S., up to 30% of opioid-related deaths are millennials between the ages of 20 to 29. Millennials in high income counties are three to four times more likely to die from opioid use disorders than they were 20 years ago (Institution for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent research center at the University of Washington).

The U.S. has been hardest hit. In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in one year. This is more than the 38,000 that died from car crashes and 36,000 that died from gun violence. An opinion piece in the Washington Post warns with good reason “the opioid epidemic could turn into a pandemic if we’re not careful.”  (Washington Post, February 9, 2017, Robert Gebelhoff)

A 2015 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people addicted to painkillers were 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin. Consider the last statement within the context of the number of people represented in the above research.  It’s likely this statement also applies to the more socially acceptable and dangerous synthetic drugs, along with the consequences for their families and friends.

I agree with Mr. Gebelhoff of the Washington Post—if we can’t get ahead of this deadly and costly epidemic, we are facing an oncoming pandemic. It’s important to identify people at risk for addiction and deliver alternative treatments earlier to prevent or end the cycle of emergency room and first responder calls, suffering and economic implications.



How governments are taking action at the state and local levels

Montgomery County, Ohio Juvenile Drug Court is using IBM’s Watson Care Manager to view all information related to a juvenile enrolled in the Drug Court Program, and collaborate with treatment, probation and case workers on the youth’s case plan. The real-time integrated view and collaboration capabilities increase the team’s ability to help ensure the youth will successfully complete the program.

Michigan is using IBM Watson’s Cognitive algorithms to analyze patterns in Medicaid claims, pharmacy and encounter data to predict their members that are at higher risk. Members are informed of the risks to their health, provided early treatment options, and education is delivered to their utilizers, providers and prescribers.

As a global community with a common purpose, with access to cognitive and collaborative technologies by health, law enforcement and government organizations, we can turn the tide on this epidemic.

For more information about how IBM can help, please visit our Government Social Programs page.

Health and Human Services Solutions Leader

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