Animated Loading
Having trouble loading this page? Get help troubleshooting.

Mapping An Epidemic: New Data Shows Where Pills, Prescribers, Overdose Deaths Overlap

Published
To tackle an epidemic at the population level, you need data. Lots and lots of data. That's especially true with our state, and our nation's, opioid...

To tackle an epidemic at the population level, you need data. Lots and lots of data. That's especially true with our state, and our nation's, opioid addiction and overdose death epidemic. Scientists need to know who's using? Where? When? Why? How do they get started? Who supplies them? What else were they taking when they died? What are the other factors in their lives or communities contributing to the problem? 

Thankfully, more of this kind of data has become publicly available. I'm no epidemiologist, but here I share with you some of the most recent maps and data. Taken together, the picture they paint is that opioids are - as we knew - widely prescribed. This is a suburban and rural problem, often, but no community seems to be immune. Does knowing where a problem is at its worst help you stop it? Not completely. But it's a start.

1. Note the newly realized searchable map from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that shows county-by-county level opioid prescription data. They're calling it the opioid "heat map," and you can use it to find out, for example, what percentage of a prescribers' scripts are for opioids, how many prescribers are in an area, and how that county compares to others, to the state, and to the nation. It's Medicare Part D data, which means that these are prescription for people 65 and older. But what's interesting is that some of the same areas with high prescribing rates are also the same areas with high overdose death rates. They might be related, they might not, but the layers of information begin to paint a picture.

2. Look at the first page of this draft strategic plan (about to become a final plan sometime today) to fight opioid overdose deaths. It's a map of where overdose deaths occur, by county - the first time we've had such information. This map shows Hepatitis C mortality hot spots in Massachusetts. HCV is linked closely with injection drug use.

3. ProPublica makes this "prescriber check up" tool available: you can look up doctors by zip code, city, state, and learn quite a bit about their prescribing habits, including how they rank compared to other doctors in the area in terms of the amount of opioids they prescribe. Why is that helpful? Doctors who prescribe a much higher percentage than their peers may have good reasons for doing that. They may also be missing an opportunity to try alternatives, or educate patients about the dangers of these medications. If you're in recovery from addiction of any kind, you might want to find a doctor with some experience treating addiction, or at least some familiarity with the disease so that you can discuss alternatives to opioid painkillers.

4. New maps, like those from epidemiologist Thomas Stokpa at Tufts, are beginning to map the additional consequences of injection drug use - namely hepatitis C infections. 

Map of overdose deaths, 2014 - 2015, by county, in Rhode Island.
Map of overdose deaths, 2014 - 2015, by county, in Rhode Island.
This map shows Hepatitis C mortality hot spots in Massachusetts. HCV is linked closely with injection drug use.
This map shows Hepatitis C mortality hot spots in Massachusetts. HCV is linked closely with injection drug use.