Painful Lessons: Using Data on Overdose Deaths to Combat Opioid Crisis


By Aaron Payne

The Ohio Valley’s numbers on the opioid crisis are grim, especially so in West Virginia, which has the nation’s highest rate of overdose deaths.

But those numbers could give health workers the ability to identify people at risk of drug overdose and then reach them before they die.

That’s what researchers from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources were hoping for when they built a data profile from statistics on the 830 residents who fatally overdosed in 2016.

Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta is one of the leaders in the state facing the worst of the addiction crisis. I recently sat down with him to discuss what he has learned from the overdose data, and how the information can help reach others before it’s too late.

Social Autopsy

RAHUL GUPTA: If you have heart disease or you may be at risk of having heart disease there are a lot of risk factors. The doctor might often say you’re a walking heart attack about to happen and we need to do a set of things to lower your risk for that event.

Similar to that we looked at the hundreds of West Virginians that were dying of opioid overdose year after year. We began to think ‘How much do we really know about the risk for someone having an opioid overdose fatal or nonfatal?’ We started to look at literature and there are some known risk factors. But there’s not enough to actually understand the epidemiology of the disease itself.

We have the data. We have well over 800 West Virginians that died in 2016. Rather than just continue to count numbers, let’s start to understand those lives that have been lost. And understand what we can we learn from those human beings and what were the specific factors that made them more susceptible to fatal overdoses.

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