Will We Be Ready for the Next “Opioid Crisis”?

Police Light Over Busy Street


August 31, 2017

Each day, 91 people die in the U.S. from an opioid overdose.1 In Pennsylvania alone, 4,642 people lost their lives in 2016, an increase of 37 percent from 2015.2 These numbers are staggering.

The opioid crisis affects millions of people each year in terms of substance abuse, deaths, effects on families, crime prevention and the myriad services needed to address the issue. In my work as a researcher on the opioid crisis at Pennsylvania State University, I have many questions as I document the devastating pervasiveness of this crisis. How did we get here? Why didn’t we recognize the imminent severity of this crisis? And more importantly, have we learned from this crisis, and are we prepared for the next drug-related health crisis?

My colleagues and I are currently working with our valued partners at the Pennsylvania State Police to understand the opioid crisis. As we sift through data that might be utilized as indicators of a growing drug issue from a law enforcement perspective, I am struck by the lack of data reporting precision and coordination and sharing of information across and within governmental and private entities.  These issues with data limit our state’s ability to monitor trends for the current opioid crisis, and they remain a hindrance to anticipate a future “opioid crisis.”

Pennsylvania’s issues with data coordination, sharing and precision are not unique. Other states face similar challenges as they combat the opioid crisis and anticipate the next drug crisis. Here are some ideas to gain a better understanding of drug trends and better prepare ourselves for what lies ahead: 

  1. Develop a centralized drug reporting system at the state level – A mandatory reporting system, to capture law enforcement information such as drug-related arrests, drug seizures, coroner and medical examiner reports of substances, and parolee testing urinalysis results, is the foundation of effective data sharing. The system should encompass other agencies’ data as well, such as emergency room overdose visits, substance abuse treatment and first responder incidents related to drugs.
  2. Increase funding for coroners and medical examiners – Accurate, timely testing for the presence of drugs in deceased individuals is critical, and additional funding will improve these items. Equally as critical is ensuring staff support for prompt and efficient data entry into the centralized system.
  3. Share data across agencies – Agencies must work with the appropriate legal entities to develop ways to encourage data sharing and develop mechanisms to signal issues associated with substance abuse and distribution.
  4. Utilize data fusion models to combine and model data – Apply methods to combine disparate data into systems that are easy to use and interpret through data fusion models.

The data issues associated with developing appropriate metrics to preempt future crises are real but not insurmountable. By standardizing data collection and reducing barriers to data sharing, we can save hundreds of thousands of Americans from the current and future opioid crisis.

Special thanks to the Pennsylvania State Police for their willingness to share data for this and other projects related to combating the opioid crisis.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Understanding the Epidemic,” 2016, https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html.
  2. Wood, S. & Sapatkin, D., “DEA: Fatal ODs rose 37% across Pa. in 2016,” 2017, http://www.philly.com/philly/health/addiction/dea-fatal-ods-rose-37-across-pa-in-2016-20170608.html?mobi=true.