Inconsistent Data Confuses Our Understanding Of The Opioid Crisis

Dec 3, 2017

Researchers say improvements in the collection of opioid overdose data could save lives.

Faculty from the RIT Center for Public Safety Initiatives examined data reported in Monroe County for opioid-related deaths, emergency department visits, and the administration of naloxone. 

Credit RIT Center for Public Safety Initiatives

They found inconsistencies in the numbers.

For instance, the New York State Department of Health reported 118 opioid overdose deaths for Monroe County last year, while the Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office reported 169 such deaths. 

Janelle Duda-Bhanwar, a doctoral candidate and co-author of the RIT report, said the discrepancy can be explained by how each department was categorizing the data.

"The Medical Examiner's Office is reporting by county of death, where the death occurred. The New York State Department of Health data is recording where the resident is from."

There is also significant lag time in confirming and reporting overdose fatalities because of the amount of time it takes to get the results of toxicology tests, Duda-Bhanwar said.

There were even greater inconsistencies in the reporting of the administration of naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdose.  It was once exclusively administered by emergency responders, but in recent years, there have been initiatives to train community members, school employees, and others to use the potentially life-saving medication.  Duda-Bhanwar said the wide availability of naloxone explains why state and county figures on the use of the drug vary widely.

She and her fellow researchers say accurate reporting of data related to the opioid crisis is critical for communities as they try to understand and respond to the scope and scale of the problem.

"It's really hard to act without knowing who this is touching, who this is affecting, and then what can be done about it," said Duda-Bhanwar.