State-UK partnership creates system to track drug overdoses

Illustration by FiveThirtyEight and Getty Images
Kentucky has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, but the state is trying to fight it with innovative efforts to gather more specific data about overdose deaths. The Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center, a partnership between the state Department for Public Health and the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, built a "drug-overdose fatality surveillance system" that combines information sources like death-certificate information, post-mortem toxicology analysis, and victims' prescription history to get a better picture of which drugs are killing people and under what circumstances.

"The efforts that KIPRC and the state have made to improve this data have led to crucial findings, including that Kentucky’s crisis isn’t one crisis, but many," Kathryn Casteel reports for FiveThirtyEight. "Different parts of the state are afflicted with different drugs. Northern Kentucky, for example, has a high prevalence of heroin and fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that is more deadly than heroin and other types of opioids — while in the eastern part of the state, prescription opioids are still the main concern.
KIPRC chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
"We’re not doing this for the sake of research," Svetla Slavova, a biostatistician with KIPRC, told Casteel. "We provide actionable data for policymaking, treatment and prevention. We’re trying to be responsive and provide data that will help make these decisions." Because of KIPRC's research, Van Ingram, the executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, said he was able to push legislation increasing the availability of the anti-overdose drug naloxone.

One of KIPRC's biggest efforts is to make death-certificate information more uniform across the state, because "even the smallest differences in language can leave overdose deaths uncounted," Casteel reports. Sarah Hargrove, a data management analyst for KIPRC and former autopsy technician for the state, is spearheading the effort. It's tough going, since some coroners in the state's 120 counties, many of them small, have limited resources and funding, and many have little medical experience.

But KIPRC is making headway. "Researchers were able to determine the specific drugs that were involved in 97 percent of drug overdose fatalities in 2016; that’s compared with 82 percent using death certificates alone," Casteel reports. The also used the surveillance system "to find which drugs were most commonly involved in deaths linked to a combination of substances, as well as which drugs were involved in overdose deaths among people of different age groups and genders."

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