Study Uses Geo-Mapping To Track Opioid Hotspots

Study Uses Geo-Mapping To Track Opioid Hotspots

By Kelly Burch 08/25/16

One of the study's major findings is that women are prescribed opiates at a higher rate than men, but men have higher rates of overdose deaths.

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Study Uses Geo-Mapping To Track Opioid Hotspots

Much has been made of the opiate crisis moving into middle-class neighborhoods. Now, a new study at the University of Delaware is using geo-mapping to identify hotspots of fentanyl use, in hopes of better understanding a pattern of prescribing opiates that can lead to drug abuse and overdose deaths. 

Researchers are compiling data on the state of Delaware, looking at prescription rates neighborhood by neighborhood to get a systemic picture of where opiates are most common in the state. 

"Most research on the epidemic has focused on individual prescribers and patients, but that approach overlooks community-level and structural factors that might be important," Tammy Anderson, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware who is leading the research, told Phys.org

The project looks at legal prescriptions for fentanyl and other opiates. Researchers are looking at how often the powerful opiate is prescribed, as well as detailing differences in the age and socioeconomic traits among populations to whom it is prescribed more often than average. 

The project is ongoing and expected to last four to five more years. However, preliminary data from January 2013 to December 2014 has already yielded interesting results. 

For example, people over 50 experienced the largest increase in opiate prescriptions of all kinds, according to the data. And women are prescribed opiates, including fentanyl, at higher rates than men—but men have higher rates of overdose deaths. 

Socioeconomic factors play a large role in prescription rates as well. Neighborhoods with the highest fentanyl and other opiate prescription rates tend to be rural, supporting the idea that the opiate epidemic has moved beyond urban areas. 

In addition, areas with lower home values and lower educational attainments are linked to higher rates of opiate prescriptions. 

The data also showed that while the rate of fentanyl prescriptions remained stable during 2013 and 2014, the rate of prescriptions for other opiates rose during that time. 

Although this study is looking solely at legal opiate prescriptions, Anderson hopes that the research will help professionals better allocate resources in the fight against opiate addiction, which also includes heroin and black market fentanyl. 

"It's not very cost-effective to put your resources into areas that don't have much of a problem," Anderson told Phys.org. "You want to target the areas that need the most help. Pinpointing neighborhood level risk factors for opiate-related problems—and where they occur—can help other states prioritize areas for intervention with existing problems as well as effectively respond to future epidemics.”

Preliminary findings from the research were presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. 

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

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