Governments use cloud technology to combat opioid crisis

During the hour-long “Battling the Opioid Crisis with Help from the Cloud” panel at the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, 130 people across the country died from an opioid overdose.

That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics. At nearly 50,000 annually, it’s more people than those killed in traffic accidents, the more-often quoted statistic on accidental deaths in the U.S. each year.

The panelists have implemented cloud-based solutions across agencies in multiple levels of government to securely input, analyze, and distribute citizen data in support of programs designed to address substance abuse and behavioral health in their communities.

Kathryn Burgum, North Dakota
Kathryn Burgum, first lady of North Dakota

New technologies helping fight addiction

However, it was the opening presentation by North Dakota First Lady Kathryn Burgum that really set the tone about this deadly epidemic. She began her remarks by asking the audience of approximately 200 attendees to please stand if anyone in their families had suffered from an addiction. From my view, it appeared that 90% of the room rose from their sets, a somber testament to the huge problem facing this country.

Ms. Burgum, who told the audience she has been in her own long-term recovery for 17 years, has been supporting and developing initiatives to eliminate the shame and stigma around the chronic disease of addiction in North Dakota’s communities. She stated that the advent of data analytics and cloud computing were a welcome weapon against this scourge which claims so many lives and cost the economy over $600 billion every year, according to panelist Carlos Rivero, chief data officer for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Speaking with Kris Shera, state opioid coordinator for the Washington State Health Care Authority, after the panel, he said role entails monitoring and maintaining the state’s opioid response plan. He also explained how cloud technology can facilitate that plan.

“We have a number of work groups and activities that are associated with that plan, one of which is our data work group, which underscores the importance of having a robust system of data collection so that you can evaluate your response to the opioid crisis,” he said. “When we talk about the cloud, what we’re talking about is essentially making data more accessible and more usable by all of the agencies and individuals that are our stakeholders and that have a vested interest in responding to this crisis.”

Kris Shera, John Thomas Flynn
Kris Shera, left, state opioid coordinator for the Washington State Health Care Authority speaks with John Thomas Flynn at the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit on June 11, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Shera said that traditionally, data warehouses for health surveillance data, and collected opioid data, were stored on in-house servers. They were siloed, with each agency having their own sets of data that’s scrubbed and monitored by their own epidemiologists. As a result, sharing that data quickly and in a meaningful way is sometimes difficult and cumbersome.

Now the whole objective is trying to get that data into one place.

“The cloud certainly facilitates that. And having all the data accessible, in the cloud makes analyzing the data easier,” Shera said.

Data gathering’s good, but using it is better

He reiterated one of his points from the panel, that collecting data is good but what matters is using it.

“You can’t make decisions on data that you can’t analyze,” he said. “The reason that we put so much emphasis on data collection and usage is because it tells the story of what we’re doing.”

His team can collect that data and can determine whether or not interventions are effective, as well as their effectiveness by location. Thus, they can use data to make their interventions more targeted, and the information can help them respond to this crisis in a more meaningful way.

Looking ahead five years, Shera said he thought the opioid crisis was “kind of at the precipice, seeing a decline in overdose death numbers, and the associated healthcare costs. And it’s taken some time.” Although that’s not to say we should celebrate or rest on our laurels.

“It’s taken a lot of research and it’s taken a lot of ingenuity on the part of a government administrators like myself and also my chain of command back in Washington state,” he said. “In Washington state right now we’re seeing a spike in deaths related to methamphetamine use. So sometimes you feel like you’re playing a game of whack-a-mole, where if you tap one down and then another issue pops up. So five years from now, I would expect to see the health issues and the deaths associated with the opioid crisis to be decreasing. But that’s not to say another problem couldn’t pop up.”

Job perks

Shera is a former Army mental health specialist. The bulk of his clinical experiences involved dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, traumatic brain injury and other types of issues seen among soldiers who are post-deployment. He said that at the end of the day, he saw himself as being in the business of saving lives.

“I think the most exciting thing about my job right now is that I get to travel around Washington state and also around the country. And I get to meet like-minded individuals who are also very much invested in solving the opioid crisis,” he said. “The main thing that inspires me is that I realized that people are dying every day, that communities are being ravaged by the opioid crisis and that we’re losing — some families are losing entire generations to the opioid crisis.”

Thank you, Kris Shera and your team, for your service.

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