USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute

4 Ways GIS Can Help Fight Drug Epidemics

4 ways gis can help fight drug epidemics
According to statistics from the Centers of Disease Control, more than 115 Americans die each day from opioid overdoses. Additionally, the economic burden imposed by the abuse of prescription pain relievers and heroin adds up to $78.5 billion a year. As a result, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officially declared the crisis a national health emergency in 2017.

The stakes are high as healthcare providers, government agencies and nonprofit organizations strive to contend with widespread addictions to narcotic, and the right information is crucial to making these efforts successful.

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How can GIS help drug epidemics?

Geospatial intelligence can assist in addressing the causes and consequences of substance abuse. Geographic information science (GIS) offers a data-driven perspective that equips authorities and the public with the visibility to understand drug-related problems and evaluate potential solutions.

The use of GIS in medicine, public health services, law enforcement and policymaking connects stakeholders with powerful tools for analysis and strategy. Using GIS to document and analyze the prevalence of drug use, geospatial problem-solvers have opportunities to make a difference in an urgent health crisis.

1. Empowering Healthcare Initiatives

In recent years, geospatial medicine has emerged as a healthcare field that emphasizes how a patient’s location affects diagnosis and treatment. The application of GIS in medicine allows medical professionals to identify significant environmental factors, leading to more effective prevention and better outcomes for patients. In the case of managing addiction, geohealth can be a major advantage in situations where every second counts.

With findings drawn from GIS tools, healthcare professionals identify clusters of addiction problems in the regions that they serve and consider how distance may limit access to treatment. Geohealth leads to informed decisions about prescribing opioids to manage chronic pain and using Naxalone to prevent overdose deaths. When emergency medical technicians and first responders are aware of relevant patterns and trends, they may be more successful in saving the lives of opioid users.

2. Supporting Law Enforcement Strategies

Local, state and federal law enforcement rely on geographic information to prevent the illicit use and sale of narcotics. Spatial data can help to formulate strategies for reducing an area’s supply of heroin and prescription opioids. Police are more successful in meeting their objectives when they have access to accurate intelligence and stay in communication with the community and healthcare providers.

That is why the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration deployed GIS tools as part of its High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program. An area qualifies as an HIDTA if:

  • It serves as a center for the production, importation or distribution of illegal drugs
  • These drug-related activities are causing significant harm in the region or elsewhere
  • Local law enforcement agencies have deployed the necessary resources for an active response
  • Combating the local drug problem calls for greater federal resources

The HIDTA program offers access to detailed information, including spatial data, to achieve reductions in drug activity. By identifying patterns in the circulation of narcotics, mapping areas where opioid overdoses are spiking and tracking the incidence of overprescription, police departments and other agencies can coordinate their efforts. A mapping interface called ODMAP allows law enforcement and first responders to see real-time overdose surveillance data that enables speedier interventions.

3. Developing Policy Solutions

Government agencies must create and implement policies to address the public health crises that arise from drug abuse. GIS keeps officials up to date on fluctuation in vital data points, giving them a straightforward way to gauge the effectiveness of their response.

Policymakers and social services providers can adjust their strategies and meet emerging challenges by tracking indicators like:

  • Narcotics seizures
  • Drug activity reports
  • Overdoses
  • Drug-related deaths

As one of the top 10 states for opioid-related overdoses, Kentucky has committed to a collective response to the heroin epidemic in its northern counties, spearheaded by a task force called the Heroin Impact Response Team. A GIS platform documents the severe issues facing the region, presenting geographic data to track dangers and direct resources to communities that need them. A GIS platform shares information about mortality rates from overdoses and locations that have experienced increasing calls for police and emergency services due to opioids.

4. Spreading Awareness and Information

In addition to assisting community leaders and doctors, geospatial data provides the general public with important updates about the drug problems in their areas. Mapping can offer ways for individuals to get involved in fighting the opioid crisis and show those who are struggling with drug addiction where to find help.

GIS enables public-facing services like:

  • Directing users to drop-off boxes where they can safely dispose of narcotics
  • Showing the locations of facilities for addiction treatment and alternative pain management
  • Providing a simple way to report where drug activity may be occurring
  • Educating community members about the dangers of opioid addiction and overdoses

About USC’s GIS Graduate Programs

The University of Southern California offers a comprehensive selection of GIS programs, including GIS master’s degrees and GIS graduate certificates. Click on the programs below to learn about our leading geographic information science education.

GIS Master’s Degrees

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