The Data That Saves Lives

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

For four dollars, anyone can buy a bag of heroin in a town five minutes from my school. Prescription cousins of heroin, like Oxycontin and Vicodin, have been over-prescribed for decades. But as the war on drugs has progressed, a crackdown on prescription drugs has led to higher usage of harder drugs, like heroin, in accordance with Richard Cowan’s Iron Law of Prohibition. Heroin is a very potent drug, and doesn’t come in specific concentrations or milligram amounts, which makes overdose extremely likely.

“The DPH’s inaction shows lethargy and indifference to a massive public health crisis in our community.” That quote was given to a reporter six months ago by my county’s sheriff. I live in Franklin County, Massachusetts, one region bearing the brunt of the nationwide opiate pandemic. And in the state’s poorest county, the Department of Public Health has failed to release statistics on the number of overdoses for five years, statistics which could lead to better funding, strategy, and treatment. The lack of data shocked me. The DPH could provide the exact number of flu patients by the hour, but had absolutely no data on the number of overdoses. The problem seemed so meaningful, so in need of a functional solution. And yet there was none, not from the state or others in the county.

So I made my own. I talked to local doctors and officials to figure out what data they would like to collect, and created a cloud-based survey to compile the data. Then I reached out to local first responders, including Police, Fire, and EMS services, and they adopted my system in early February of 2014. First responders enter a password, and fill out a short survey with no identifying patient information, either on their phones or on a computer, which is then sent to a database. I worked with the local sheriff’s office to have an adult in charge of the database, and every two weeks, I send infographics to the DA, local judges, and the sheriff, allowing some of this information to be released to the media. I also work closely with the new Opioid Task Force based in Franklin County, helping with community outreach, as well as analyzing and cross referencing data from local hospitals.

Despite my liberal inclinations, I recognized that this was one case where the government-run solution had failed my community. Yet it would have been far easier for me to critique the DPH’s work on this issue than to actually make a new, better solution. After I made my system, I grew more and more curious about why one didn’t exist already. While the work I had done couldn’t be considered simplistic, it was not overly complex either. I started to examine the DPH’s budget, and I couldn’t find a single item I would be willing to cut. The two biggest programs funded public health hospitals and substance abuse clinics, the latter often treating those opiate addicts trying to recover.

That’s when I realized what my role was: to help a small rural community collect free data, and use it to garner needed funding.

I couldn’t treat every overdose, or fundraise nearly enough money to build rehab clinics, or get this oft-fatal drug off the streets forever. In the past few months, this issue has received more coverage, with articles in the Boston Globe and other sources using my statistics. Members of the County Government also presented this growing problem to a panel of senior judges and sheriffs in nearby communities, and I am expanding my program to their counties. These members also met with the head of the DPH, and our governor has promised to allocate $20 million to treating and managing the crisis in our state, including a sum for improved data collection.

Watching my community be ravaged by a crisis and watching my data do a small part to alleviate that crisis has given me a firsthand experience of the beneficence good public health policy can provide. In college, I will continue to study public health and statistics and, hopefully, bring that knowledge back to my ailing community.

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