Strengths and Weaknesses of Existing Data Sources to Support Research to Address the Opioids Crisis

Published in: Preventive Medicine Reports (November 2019). doi:

by Rosanna Smart, Courtney Ann Kase, Erin Audrey Taylor, Bradley D. Stein

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Better opioid prescribing practices, promoting effective opioid use disorder treatment, improving naloxone access, and enhancing public health surveillance are strategies central to reducing opioid-related morbidity and mortality. Successfully advancing and evaluating these strategies requires leveraging and linking existing secondary data sources.

We conducted a scoping study in Fall 2017 at RAND, including a literature search (updated in December 2018) complemented by semi-structured interviews with policymakers and researchers, to identify data sources and linking strategies commonly used in opioid studies, describe data source strengths and limitations, and highlight opportunities to use data to address high-priority public health research questions.

We identified 306 articles, published between 2005 and 2018, that conducted secondary analyses of existing data to examine one or more public health strategies. Multiple secondary data sources, available at national, state, and local levels, support such research, with substantial breadth in data availability, data contents, and the data's ability to support multi-level analyses over time. Interviewees identified opportunities to expand existing capabilities through systematic enhancements, including greater support to states for creating and facilitating data use, as well as key data challenges, such as data availability lags and difficulties matching individual-level data over time or across datasets.

Multiple secondary data sources exist that can be used to examine the impact of public health approaches to addressing the opioid crisis. Greater data access, improved usability for research purposes, and data element standardization can enhance their value, as can improved data availability timeliness and better data comparability across jurisdictions.

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