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How Northern Kentucky Is Fighting the Opioid Epidemic

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide “Analytics in Action: How Government Tackles Critical Issues With Data.” In this guide, we share firsthand accounts from government employees at all levels who are using analytics to identify critical issues and find solutions. Download the full guide here.

Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department uses its $16.3 million budget to fund programs that prevent disease, promote wellness and protect against health threats. GovLoop recently spoke with the department’s Debbie Young, Public Health Informatics Manager; Emily Gresham Wherle, Public Information Administrator; and Ned Kalapasev, Database/GIS Manager, to gain some insight on best practices for fighting the opioid epidemic.

GovLoop: What issues is your organization trying to tackle?

Debbie: In Northern Kentucky right now, the largest health threats are obesity, heart disease and substance abuse. One of the things that we wanted to do in response to the substance abuse issue, which in Northern Kentucky is opioid abuse, is put together a central repository of information where we at the health department could be the chief health strategist on this issue, where people come for information on the opioid epidemic.

GovLoop: How are you using data and analytics to address those issues?

Emily: We’ve been working on educating people about the need for a needle exchange, and data and a story map can be very helpful when you’re advocating for policy change. The story map includes things like treatment capacity in the region, so [when] advocating for policy, advocating for funding, advocating for change, data can help drive a lot of that.

Ned: Geographic Information System in general is a very handy tool for combining multiple sources of data that share common geography. Being able to combine things like police reports, emergency medical services, as well as hospitalizations or ER utilization rates on a ZIP code level really shines a light on areas that may have higher activity and associated strain on your public resources.

GovLoop: Can you share a time when your organization used analytics to drive better decision-making?

Debbie: It’s data that we collected for the purpose of a hepatitis C epidemiological profile. We took that data and mapped it over time to show hot spots in our area of high hepatitis C [rates].

Ned: By monitoring the hepatitis C rates in a community by ZIP code, you can see which areas are more active in IV drug use.

Debbie: The same areas which have the high rate of hepatitis also have the high rate of police reports and overdoses. So all of those different pieces of data that we collected — overdoses, hospitalization, police runs, EMS [Emergency Medical Services] runs — they all correlate to the same areas on our map.

GovLoop: What did you learn and what were the outcomes?

Emily: We’ve been advocating for syringe exchange. Kentucky has requirements to operate syringe exchanges where you have to get governmental approval from the city and county in which you operate, and that has been a difficult task to accomplish in Northern Kentucky. As we continue to look at how we can come at the problem from a different angle, we have some partners who wanted to call us out into various communities, and we had to come back to the data and say, “No, these are the communities that we need to focus our energy and our advocacy on because this is where the problem is the greatest.”

GovLoop: Can you share tips on how you got the data you needed and decided what tools/techniques to use?

Debbie: We listened to the partners and sought advice from them [about] what [they] want to see. Then we reached out to the organizations that might have that data, such as state police [and] EMS. Then we had to establish relationships with the people who supplied us with the data. We requested their data, put it into workable formats and then shared [it] with them so that they could see what their data was doing — bringing them on board to supply us with additional information in the future. Our plans are to keep this updated so that the latest and greatest data is available for our community.

Emily: Some organizations may not have capacity to do [that] kind of analysis, so that may be a service that we can offer.

GovLoop: What were the resource requirements?

Ned: The man hours [for] obtaining data and actually [putting it] in usable formats, those were the highest cost for us.

GovLoop: What was key to your success with analytics?

Debbie: Working closely with the organizations that supply the data, support[ing] partnerships for future initiatives, sharing results so that they can see their data in use [and] making the data available to the public. I think behind it all is really the support from upper management to devote the time and resources so that [data] can be used in decision-making.

GovLoop: How are you creating a culture for analytics at your agency?

Debbie: It’s definitely top-down. Dr. [Lynne] Sadler [District Director of Health] came to us. We have this initiative, which is the Heroin Impact Response team. But the missing piece in that organized effort is the data collection, analytics and presentation. We want to provide that piece.

GovLoop: What do you hope to do with data and analytics in the near term and long term that you cannot do today?

Ned: I would like to see more real-time, mobile data collection [and] assessment on the fly. Being able to pull that data when you need it would be fantastic for our emergency response e orts. Any time there’s any kind of public health disaster or emergency, having that at your fingertips would be [the] way to go.

GovLoop: What advice do you have for others in government who want to use data analytics?

Ned: Share your data. A lot of organizations just hold onto their data because it’s their data, and they’re going to do something about it, or they’re going to publish some kind of plan for it that may or may not come to fruition.

Debbie: Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and find the person who knows how to answer the question for you.

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