Geo-Mapping May Pinpoint Areas with High Prescription Opioid Use

Pinpointing opioid hot spots can create targeted prevention and treatment efforts.

Researchers from the University of Delaware have been using geo-mapping to combat the opioid epidemic that has been a growing problem in the United States.

Investigators are using geo-mapping to carefully dissect each neighborhood to identify where the use of prescription fentanyl, and other opioids are prevalent.

“Most research on the epidemic has focused on individual prescribers and patients, but that approach overlooks community-level and structural factors that might be important,” said lead researcher Tammy Anderson, PhD.

In a study that will be presented at the 111th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, researchers analyzed changes in use over time, and the difference in the prescribing rate between fentanyl and other opioids. Their preliminary findings show that fentanyl prescriptions have remained stable from 2013 to 2014, but the prescription rate for other opioids increased significantly.

They also found that women in Delaware were prescribed opioids at a higher rate than men during this time. Researchers discovered that patients over 50-years-old had the biggest increases in all opioid prescriptions.

This finding was especially prevalent in the southern part of the state, according to the study. Interestingly, rural neighborhoods were more likely to have high rates of opioid prescriptions compared with more urban areas, combatting the notion that opioid misuse is typically found in urban areas.

Researchers also found that low socioeconomic status was associated with a higher prescription rate especially among patients over 50-years-old.

After the mapping and analysis concludes in 4 to 5 years, researchers hope to further explore the opioid “hot spots” they discovered, and conduct interviews to dive deeper into the epidemic. This could potentially lead to targeted prevention and treatment efforts, according to the study.

“It's not very cost-effective to put your resources into areas that don't have much of a problem,” Dr Anderson said. “You want to target the areas that need the most help. Pinpointing neighborhood level risk factors for opiate-related problems -- and where they occur -- can help other states prioritize areas for intervention with existing problems as well as effectively respond to future epidemics.”