10 Ways We're Using Data to Fight Disease

Halting Drug Epidemics
A police officer holds bags of heroin confiscated as evidence in Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 2015, Gloucester created the Angel Program, which directs addicts to treatment centers, instead of jailing them. The program has been copied by many police departments. John Moore/Getty Images

Drug use can ravage communities, just as many diseases do. The numbers of deaths from overdose in the United States are staggering – over 47,000 in 2014 alone [source: American Society of Addiction Medicine]. In fact, drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and opioid addiction is driving the majority of deaths.

Tracking mortality data in different communities can give health care providers, governments and community activists a solid sense of how drugs might be influencing a particular region. Based on this data, they could know where particularly lethal strains of drugs might be infiltrating towns and use government action to stop the spread. Finding out more about where people are dying from overdoses can clue governments in to which communities need interventions, such as rehabilitation services or doctors to provide harm reduction strategies.

This type of strategy has helped many rural communities take action against the opioid epidemic, leading to very positive results. Several rural areas in the U.S. have followed the rehabilitation strategies set forth by the Gloucester, Massachusetts Police Department that, in just one year, led to more than 400 patients being referred to treatment and overnight incarceration costs dropping 75 percent. For instance, anyone with an addiction can walk into the police department and staff on hand will help get them into a treatment program [source: Toliver].

Finally, having drug-related mortality data in hand has led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come up with guidelines for physicians on opioid prescription practices [source: Gaglioti]. Not only does the data help fight the epidemic, but it also gets at the root of the problem and can stop substance abuse before it takes hold.