Inside West Virginia's Push To Curb Opioid Deaths

By Kelly Burch 05/04/18

A multi-pronged plan which centers on data collection appears to be having a positive impact on the staggering stats. 

a group of businesspeople discussing a plan in an office.

In West Virginia, a state that has the highest overdose rate in the nation by a long shot, it’s hard to be optimistic when it comes to the opioid epidemic.

However, thanks to initiatives led by Dr. Rahul Gupta, the state’s public health commissioner, rays of hope are beginning to break through. 

In 2017, for example, overdose rates rose 2% in West Virginia, according to Politico magazine. However, in the second half of the year they slowed by about 25%, showing the progress from efforts that Gupta has initiated. 

The cornerstone of Gupta’s approach is collecting as much data as possible about overdose victims, in order to understand the risk factors for overdoses, in the same way that doctors understand the risk factors for heart disease. 

“We wanted to know who each person was and what we could have done to help them,” Gupta said. “We didn’t have something like that for opioids. We’re all sort of trying to address a problem without a lot of data to know how to approach it from a prevention aspect. So we wanted to develop those risk factors.”

Gupta’s staff went through public databases, Medicaid rolls, medical examiner reports, birth certificates, death certificates and criminal records in order to help officials understand exactly who was dying from opioid overdoses. The hope was that armed with this information, the state could more effectively target intervention and prevention efforts.

The data gave a clear picture of who was most likely to die from an opioid overdose:

“If you’re a male between the ages of 35 to 54, with less than a high school education, you’re single and you’ve worked in a blue-collar industry,” Gupta said, “you pretty much are at a very, very high risk of overdosing.”

With this information, the state legislature passed laws limiting initial opioid prescriptions and expanding access to medication-assisted treatment. 

The data collection also showed that while 71% of people had received emergency medical care before they died, only half of those had been given naloxone. 

“We saw this was clearly a missed opportunity where we could have saved people… so it’s critical that whenever these individuals do come into contact with one of the health systems, we take advantage of that opportunity and we do not let that slide,” Gupta said. 

The state has recently mandated that all emergency responders carry naloxone, and passed legislation enabling people to access the medication without paying out of pocket. Overall, Gupta is cautiously optimistic about the progress his state is making. 

“We are expecting improvements in overdose deaths this year with all of these things we’re putting into place,” Gupta said. “We’re thrilled about it, but we still feel that we have a long way to go.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.