Oakland County, Michigan Using Data and Maps to Help Understand and Combat the Opioid Epidemic

Photo: Dwight Burdette

Oakland County Michigan, a participant of the Opioid Mapping Initiative, recently announced a lawsuit against multiple drug manufacturers and distributors for deceptive marketing and sale of opioids. In Oakland County in 2016, enough prescriptions were filled for each resident (including children) to have 48 pills, which amounts to a startling 57 million in total for the county . Oakland County is now using maps to help show exactly how these prescriptions are being dispensed in each county zip code. While the map does show that the number of filled prescriptions has decreased slightly over the last few years, the totals are still staggering. Even more alarming? Oakland County isn’t even close to the highest prescribing region of the nation-- some areas top 140 prescriptions per person.  But Oakland County is now taking innovative steps to use transparency as an educational tool before the epidemic gets worse.

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The County’s use of data and mapping as mechanism for awareness and prevention can be seen through their recently released Opioid Open Data Initiative Page. These maps and datasets can help illustrate the state of the epidemic in the county by mapping things such as deaths, and number of prescriptions; the initiative also shows important preventative measures such as locations for treatment, prescription drop boxes, and recovery resources. Trisha Zizumbo is a Public Education Supervisor at the Health Department in Oakland County and uses these resources frequently to educate the community about the epidemic. “In the Health Department, we live in spreadsheets, charts, and trend data. Now when we look at this data, I can pull up an interactive map to see exactly where these trends are happening.” Trisha helps lead the Oakland County Prescription Drug Abuse Partnership, which consists of judges, treatment specialists, health officials, and law enforcement working together to provide community resources and showing the maps on a community-facing page.

The data and mapping effort was a union of the County Public Health Department, the Sheriff’s Office, and key IT resources. Tammi Shepherd, chief of application services for Oakland County, who helped coordinate this effort, said, “this helped kick off a big push to educate the public through data, and maps are a great way to tell a story. Trisha’s group was already doing great work, and the maps just enhance it.” This journey to showcase opioid related data started when Tammi’s team created Operation Medicine Cabinet for the Sheriff’s Office, which showed the public where to dispose of unused medications on take-back days. The topics covered by the maps showcased on the website continue to expand into other areas focusing on the health data.

Counties are afraid that sharing information will paint certain communities in a bad light, but Oakland County sees this as a proactive step towards getting those same communities more involved before the crisis worsens.

Being transparent with data can be a cause for concern, however. County officials across the country worry about making a certain neighborhood “look bad,” especially when showing things like mortality data. Several counties that already have access to data are blocked from sharing this information publicly due to a fear of painting certain communities in a bad light. But Oakland County sees sharing information as a proactive step towards getting those same communities more involved before the crisis worsens. Phil Bertollini, CIO for the county, has been a great advocate of sharing this data from the beginning. “There could definitely be a fear that this would impact economic development. But by shedding light on the issue, we can be much more forward-thinking and flip the issue around to actually do something about it.”    

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Arming communities with data has already proven to be beneficial. Local advocacy groups who have access to data about their community can show the importance of their efforts, and are becoming perhaps the strongest national voice in public education efforts. One such example is Jeannie Richards, who lost her son Bryan to the Opioid Epidemic in 2014, and has since started Bryan’s Hope, a group focused on education and prevention, which has trained hundreds of people to use Naloxone, resulting in over 140 lives saved. "We teach all our families how to use the data. We no longer feel like we are alone and in the dark. Transparency promotes action in the right direction," says Richards. Giving data access to local groups like Bryan’s Hope helps them emphasize the severity of the problem at the community level and encourages more citizens to become engaged.

As for the future of Oakland County, officials there envision an internal dataset to power dashboards with more sensitive data as an added measure to fight the epidemic, in addition to the public data shared above. One of their next steps is to create a crowd-sourced map showing alternative pain treatment options such as chiropractic practices, massage therapists, acupuncture technicians, and others like them. Not only will this provide alternatives to opioids as an immediate solution for pain, but a map like this can also promote economic development.

Oakland County is one of a dozen local governments sharing their work, applications and datasets via the Opioid Mapping Initiative. The Opioid Mapping Initiative aims to bring together local governments that are leading this effort to help share their practices with each other and use data to confront the epidemic. Oakland County is helping lead the way by being transparent with the data and providing tools to help their health and law enforcement teams make better decisions in their response.


Author:

Jeremiah Lindemann is a Public Interest Technology Fellow at New America. He has over 16 years of working in the geospatial industry and works with Esri assisting local governments in their use of GIS.