Harnessing the Power of Digital Technology to Fight the U.S. Opioid Crisis

Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illicit drug heroin, as well as prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and fentanyl. [1]

Opioid misuse and addiction is increasing in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, (HHS) 12.5 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription or illicit opioids in 2015. [2] In the same year, a total of 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. From 1999 to 2015, more than 183,000 individuals in the U.S. died from overdoses related to prescription opioids. [3] Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999 and are now the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States.

On August 10, 2017, the Trump Administration called the opioid crisis a national emergency. Shortly after, on October 26, 2017, it was officially declared a national public-health emergency under the Public Health Services Act. While this shed light on the crisis, it did not offer an action plan with concrete steps for coordinating an effective multi-sector response. Besides making the remaining $57,000 from the official U.S. Public Health Emergency Fund available, no additional resources or spending has been identified.

A 2013 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published in the Medical Care journal of the American Public Health Association, estimated the total economic burden of the opioid crisis to be $78.5 billion. That was over four years ago and the severity of the crisis has increased yearly. There is significant work that needs to be done to prevent opioid abuse and improve treatment capacity in the United States.

Digital technologies hold significant promise in curtailing the opioid crisis. In 2015, HHS launched the Opioid Initiative, which seeks to leverage the power of health information technology to improve health outcomes by reducing misuse and abuse. This past November, The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis released a report promoting the development of digital technologies to combat the epidemic. Since, HHS has hosted a code-a-thon with over 50 teams tasked with developing solutions to curtail the crisis in three tracks: prevention, treatment and usage. Here are the winning ideas:

Prevention: How can you help federal, state, and local stakeholders predict and analyze the supply and movement of legal and illicit opioids?

  • The Take Back America program evaluates the unmet need for take back programs at pharmacies in five states, where unused and unneeded opioids can be returned.

Treatment: How can you help federal, state, and local stakeholders improve access to effective treatment and recovery services?

  • A team from Yale University developed a model for real-time tracking of overdoses, which can help predict outbreaks of fentanyl overdoses in geographic regions.

Usage: How can you help federal, state, and local stakeholders identify at-risk populations and their underlying risk characteristics of opioid misuse or abuse?

  • The Opioid Prescriber Awareness Tool, which provides physicians with a visualization of their opioid prescribing patterns and compares them with local peers.

The development of digital tools may help in curtailing the current opioid epidemic, and improving population health and well-being. More than ever, innovative solutions for opioid treatment, education and access are needed. In harnessing the power of digital technology, innovators must design with ethical considerations in mind. These include rigorous testing to determine the effectiveness and usability of the technology as well as identifying and addressing the range of ethical, legal and social implications introduced when deploying technologies to intervene with or monitor sensitive health issues.

The Connected and Open Research Ethics (CORE) initiative brings a community of over 500 global Network members together to assist others in identifying the ethical, legal and social issues that present with tech-enabled health research. Join the CORE Network and be part of the conversations shaping responsible practices in the digital age.


  1. (2017). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved from: https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids
  2. The Opioid Epidemic in the United States. (2017). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from: https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/index.html
  3. Prescription Opioid Overdose Data. (2017). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html
  4. HHS Announces the Winners of the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon. (2017). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from: https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2017/12/08/hhs-announces-winners-hhs-opioid-code-thon.html
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