How W.Va is crunching data on social conditions and opioids

Susan Heavey

About Susan Heavey

Susan Heavey, (@susanheavey) a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on social determinants of health and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on resources and tip sheets at determinants@healthjournalism.org.

A social autopsy.

That’s what West Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta called his efforts to examine opioid deaths in his state, one of the hardest hit by the drug epidemic.

In an interview with WBUR, Gupta said he was crunching the data on hundreds of those who die in hopes of seeing past the medical causes and into the social issues that may have contributed. Understanding that, and the stigma, may better help him and other officials tackle the scourge that is sweeping the state.

“One of the things that we wanted to find out is [how to] learn from those who have already passed away, and how can we learn just not about their medical diagnosis or what’s in their blood, but actually also find out, what were their social conditions like? What would a social autopsy of someone who dies from a drug overdose look like?” he said on its “Here and Now” program.

“For example, we found about 71 percent of the decedents actually had Medicaid, yet we found that there was a less likelihood of getting naloxone, which is an antidote for reversing overdose in the field, if EMS was called. What we’re saying is that stigma issues run wide and probably deeper than we actually estimate [them] to be,” Gupta told host Robin Young.

The effort is noteworthy in that it represents a systematic effort to collect and analyze data to see how social determinants of health could impact such drug use. Looking at some of those issues could help authorities better understand the health care system’s failings when it comes to such patients, Gupta said in the nearly 11-minute long segment, “Here’s What West Virginia Is Doing To Address The Opioid Crisis.”

Gupta likened the problem to that of addressing diabetes, noting the difficulties to tackling other factors at play such as community, jobs, education, the environment and food establishments

“This is an epidemic of so many different epidemics. Just addressing a particular substance of use or misuse isn’t enough.”

Listen to Young’s piece here.

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