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4 Ways GIS Can Help Fight Drug Epidemics

Public health departments across the country are turning to geographic information science (GIS) to better track drug abuse. GIS tools provide visualization and a wealth of information to health officials so they can maximize their resources and send them where they’re needed. In fact the relationship between GIS and public health is so important that the term “GeoHealth” has become widely used. Without GIS, more people would likely die of drug overdoses, as officials wouldn’t know where to send help.

Here are a few examples of how GIS is helping to fight drug epidemics in America:

Health Departments Can Map Opioid Abuse

Opioid abuse has become a national issue as more Americans than ever abuse these prescription painkillers. According to The Economist, 52,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2015, and 33,000 (63 percent of them) were due to opioids.

One of the hardest hit regions of the opioid epidemic in the United States is Northern Kentucky, where someone dies of an opioid overdose once every two days. According to State Tech, five times as many people died because of opioid abuse than car accidents in 2015.

The Northern Kentucky Health Department knew it needed to figure out where the heart of the problem was so it could concentrate its resources in areas that would be most effective. The opioid crisis in the region is spread across four counties and 400,000 citizens. It would be challenging to spread medical and informational resources across one county, much less four.

This led the health department to use GIS mapping. In 2016, the county’s Heroin Impact Response Team (HIRT) launched a story map that compiled five years of data to see exactly where the most reported incidents of abuse and overdosing were located. With this mapping, health officials were able to identify five high-risk areas in the county (many of which were located in one region) to concentrate their efforts for maximum impact.

Counties Can Better Place Emergency Response Resources

An ambulance on the way to a scene

Public health departments aren’t the only organizations that need GIS to prevent drug deaths. Police departments and medical ambulance agencies need to use mapping to strategically place their resources.

NPR reported a story about ambulance response times. Placing ambulances near busy intersections during high-traffic hours makes it easy for them to respond quickly to a call about an accident. Medical professionals sometimes only have a matter of minutes to save the life of a crash victim, but counties can’t afford to place ambulances on every street corner. GIS mapping can help counties determine the best place to station them.

The same concept can be applied to law enforcement combatting drug-related crime. Using GIS maps, police departments can schedule more resources in areas where they’re likely to receive calls. Faster response times due to better mapping can save lives.

Pharmacies Can Learn Where to Stock Naloxone

Naloxone is an injectable or edible antidote for opioid overdose. Some doctors will prescribe Naloxone to parents who suspect their children are abusing opioids or heroin and some states allow law enforcement and medical response teams to carry Naloxone injections and administer them to overdose victims.

The American Pharmacists Association describes a Rhode Island pilot program to stock Naloxone in pharmacies. If local law enforcement needed an injection, they could pick up additional supplies at a CVS or Walgreens pharmacy. Furthermore, the pharmacists and staff were trained to properly give Naloxone and were allowed to administer the drug if someone brought an overdose victim into the store.

New Mexico and North Carolina have approved similar laws. Within the first few months, pharmacies in New Mexico distributed 130 Naloxone kits. Four kits were reportedly used in successful reversals. Though the kits are dispensed “to high-risk patients at the point of care,” none of the kits were actually used by the people they were dispensed to. This led pharmacists to the conclusion that the critical result of this new practice is that patients are being educated. The reasonable conclusion is that patients used the kits on others suffering from overdoses.

Naloxone can save a life if it’s administered in a timely manner. With GIS, pharmacies can learn exactly where Naloxone needs to be distributed to increase survival rates. When new regions approve the drug, companies like CVS and Walgreens can use existing data to know exactly where the Naloxone is needed, even if they’ve never sold the drug in that state before.

Citizens Can Use Story Maps to Tear Down Stereotypes

Drug abuse, particularly with heroin, comes with social, economic, and even racial stigmas. Americans in upper-class neighborhoods tend to believe overdose deaths occur only in poorer neighborhoods where the community struggles to keep crime levels down. However, this isn’t true. People in all social and economic classes can become addicted to drugs and eventually overdose.

The Esri Insider blog tells how Jeremiah Lindemann, who lost his little brother to an OxyContin overdose, created a memorial story map called Celebrating Lost Loved Ones. Rather than turning his brother into another statistic to be analyzed by the police, he used GIS to create a place to tell his story. His brother was smart, charismatic, and had his future ahead of him. He didn’t follow the typical drug addict stereotype. The Celebrating Lost Loved Ones map allows grief-stricken family members and friends to share photos and tell stories of those they have lost from drug overdoses. Many cities and states have adopted maps of their own to add a personal element to GIS data. Together, the stories prove that drug abuse doesn’t see money or color: anyone can struggle with opioid or heroin addiction.

While Lindemann encourages people to get involved in their communities to fight local drug epidemics, individual citizens can only go so far. With a GIS degree, it’s possible to work with health departments to map drug abuse and help the communities that need it the most.

If you’re passionate about drug abuse prevention, visit the University of Southern California Geographic Information Science and Technology Graduate Programs site to see how GIS studies could further your career.