How Technology Can Help Us Navigate The Opioid Epidemic During The Pandemic

Despite the overwhelming focus by the government, medical professionals and the general public on the current pandemic, the opioid epidemic remains a critical issue. In fact, the shifting emphasis from opioid misuse in America to COVID-19, while necessary, could have a significant impact on the opioid crisis. When it comes to solutions, technologies such as machine learning and EHR prescription monitoring programs are at the helm of reshaping the way medical organizations and elected officials approach the opioid epidemic.

During a state of continuous and highly unprecedented change in the industry, embracing new, innovative technology is key. Fighting the opioid epidemic requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. Despite ongoing efforts from the government (both local and federal) and medical organizations, it’s safe to say that the opioid epidemic isn’t going away. In fact, many believe that the pandemic could significantly worsen this crisis due to somewhat relaxed protocols over the distribution of scheduled medications.

The Epidemic, The Pandemic And The Critical Need

On average, 128 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. While new data from 2018 shows that drug overdose deaths decreased by 4.1%, to 67,367, there was an increase of 10% in deaths related to synthetic opioids.

To further compound this issue, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse a lot of the progress the U.S. Has made in the fight against the opioid epidemic. Issues like medical providers being stretched too thin, the overall stigma of admitting addiction and limited access to treatment solutions will only be intensified. As mental health issues rise due to feelings of isolation and depression (even among the medical community) and critical government research resources pivot to focus on the pandemic, there is looming, well-founded concern over the negative effects.

Additionally, the hospital pharmacy has never been more overwhelmed when it comes to caring for patients and ensuring they receive the medication they need. With all eyes on actively fighting this virus and high-priority shortages of inhalation drugs and pain medications such as fentanyl and propofol, it may be easier for medical professionals to steal drugs in the hospital setting — either for themselves, their families or their patients. Drug diversion is an often-overlooked contributor to the opioid epidemic, but it is one that I believe deserves more attention, especially during this global crisis.

Looking beyond the ongoing proliferation of the opioid epidemic, we can all agree there is room for — and even a critical need for — forward-thinking, effective solutions.

A Look at the Solutions

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency and released a five-point strategy to combat the opioid epidemic. There are a number of programs and technologies focused on solving this widespread and devastating issue, including online education and training for providers, prescription take-back programs and public education campaigns. As the problem persists, the recommended solutions evolve.

A major part of addressing the opioid epidemic is arming medical professionals with the technology they need to effectively track these controlled substances. AI and machine learning tools, as well as radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, have the potential to fight the opioid epidemic on the front lines in the hospital setting. When implemented effectively, these technologies have the power to provide an audit of all controlled substances from shipment to distribution, which can prevent inappropriate prescribing or drug diversion incidents.

Additionally, telehealth technology is front and center during the current COVID-19 epidemic. With so many communities dealing with shelter-in-place orders and unprecedented strain on hospital staff and physicians, there is a need for another source of treatment for patients who are addicted to opioids. Some organizations are leveraging telemedicine to continue treating opioid use disorder. One remote treatment program, RecoveryGo, leverages videoconferencing for counseling and treating patients outside of a medical setting. It also allows patients to connect with their peers through group therapy, which is an important part of recovery. Many employers are providing digital therapeutics programs for those with substance abuse and mental health issues.

It’s also important to note that action is being taken across a wide array of industries and at various scales. Tech giants like Google and Facebook — which have made significant strides in the healthcare space — have pledged to actively work to reduce websites and listings that promote the illegal distribution and purchasing of opioids.

Additionally, in an effort to better monitor prescription habits and history by patient, several medical organizations are incorporating prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP) into their existing electronic health record (EHR) technologies. This level of integration allows providers to have heightened visibility into patient prescriptions to prevent what is known as “doctor shopping” and to inhibit the overprescribing of opioid medications.

Whether it’s making recovery and support more accessible through telemedicine or enhancing visibility into controlled substance inventories for in-hospital pharmacists, combating the opioid epidemic needs to remain a top priority. It’s more important than ever, as feelings of isolation and depression increase and prescriptions for controlled substances continue, for everyone involved to remain vigilant in the fight against this crisis.

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