Here’s How Health Data Can Help Stem the Opioid Crisis

The number of people losing their lives each day to prescription or illicit opioid-related overdoses is staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 47,000 Americans died in 2017 — 130 fatalities each day — due to opioid overdoses, making it the deadliest year on record. 

You don’t have to be personally touched by the opioid crisis to understand the gravity of the statistics, let alone the immeasurable and lasting impact it is having on society. This can be addressed by better harnessing the power of data to stem this crisis. 

But, the future of information sharing is complex and requires government, industry and advocates to collaborate. There needs to be a shared regulatory and standards-based framework that enables the free flow of health care information and at the same time keeps secure this highly sensitive, personal health information that doctors depend on to care for patients.

Technology can address two of the primary problems the opioid epidemic presents: diversion (or the illegal transfer of prescription opioids) and clinical appropriateness. By replacing outdated paper prescriptions for controlled substances with digital transactions, fraud and illegal diversion of prescriptions become much more difficult. Equipped with the right information in a trusted format, both doctors and pharmacists can assess patients’ risk for misuse — no matter where in the country that care takes place — and help them get the most effective treatment.

But timing and access are everything. These tools must be deployed and used while delivering care. Without those tools, care providers must manually collect the data to assess whether a patient is at risk of abusing or misusing opioids — a near-impossible task while trying to make the best possible care decision in the moment.

At both the state and federal levels, policymakers are taking action. They recognize the promise that electronic prescribing technology holds.

Leaders in Florida and Texas recently signed bills that brought the nation to the halfway point toward requiring electronic prescribing to replace easily stolen or forged paper prescriptions. Come Jan. 1, Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Rhode Island will all require some form of e-prescribing. More than half of all states are now actively making progress on their requirements for electronic prescribing for opioids, controlled substances or all prescriptions.

Given the opportunity, doctors have responded by adopting the technology in droves. I support working with hospitals, providers and other technology companies to implement the Medicare requirements for electronic prescribing for controlled substances that were passed in the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act.

The health care industry as a whole needs to take an all-hands-on-deck approach by ensuring the proper disposal of unused medications, but at the same time, it must safeguard patients’ sensitive prescription information as it is shared from one care provider to the next.

By providing tools to tackle fraud and misuse while ensuring the security of prescription drugs, the industry is now assuming new responsibilities for building trust across the health care system. Health care professionals and their patients need to know that everyone handling this sensitive information is taking steps to safeguard it.

Collaboration is key to building a safe health care system that helps prevent patient harm and addiction while improving outcomes. Every part of the health care ecosystem — pharmacies, doctors, electronic health records vendors, software engineers and patients — must be aligned to do their part in ending the opioid epidemic.

Working together, we can break down information and technology barriers while putting in place meaningful protections that keep our deeply personal, sensitive medical data secure and private. Through a combination of technology, education and public policy, we have everything we need to turn the tide and keep patients safe.


Tom Skelton is the chief executive officer of Surescripts, which serves the nation with the single-most trusted and capable health information network, built to increase patient safety, lower costs and ensure quality care.

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