At Code-A-Thon, Programmers Work to Fight Opioid Epidemic

HHS event creates software to visualize prescription patterns, track outbreaks in real time

An addict cooks heroin in order to inject it / Getty Images

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Fifty teams of programmers and public health specialists met Wednesday and Thursday in Washington, D.C., for a code-a-thon organized by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) focused on developing software to help combat America's opioid crisis.

Over the course of two days, three-to-five person teams used federal, state, local, and private-sector data, some of it released for the first time, in combination with the latest in computer science techniques to identify patterns and trends in opioid use and abuse.

Teams worked on one of three tracks: treatment, usage, and prevention. Treatment focused on helping state, local, and federal government officials more effectively connect users with treatment for their addiction; usage focused on more effectively identifying at-risk and using populations; and prevention focused on more effectively tracking the distribution of illegal opioids.

The winners—one in each track—used the data for a variety of applications. The team from Visionist, inc. (prevention track) developed a way for five states to identify the need for takeback programs, reclaiming prescribed opioids and taking them out of circulation. The Origami Innovation team (from Yale, treatment track) created a model for tracking outbreaks in real time. And the Opioid Prescriber Awareness Tool team (treatment track) created a tool to allow prescribers to visualize their prescription patterns.

The three teams received $10,000 in prize money each.

"HHS's code-a-thon was a major step forward in the efforts to use data to address the opioid crisis," said Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan. "The innovative ideas developed today could turn into tomorrow’s solutions as we work to combat the scourge of opioid addiction sweeping the nation. On behalf of the administration, I commend all of our technology partners and the HHS staff for their hard work on this unprecedented event."

The code-a-thon was preceded by a half-day symposium, which brought together computer and policy experts from the public and private sector who discussed their work at the intersection of healthcare and computing. It featured addresses from Hargan and Vice Adm. Jerome M. Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General.

But it was the coders who were the real focus of the two-day event. One team, from the consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, spoke to the Free Beacon about its involvement.

Jessica Bonnie, a data scientist with BAH, had previously worked on another opioid code-a-thon run by the state of Virginia.

Bonnie said that she and the rest of her four person team were excited by the prospect of the code-a-thon.

"We all have a really strong interest in the topic. People are becoming more and more aware of it, so we jumped at the chance to participate in something like this," she said.

Bonnie saw the code-a-thon as a way to do her part in helping to combat the opioid epidemic.

"The topic is so pervasive now, and growing at such a tremendous rate, that as a tech person, I'm not going to be able to be treating people, but if there's something that I can do to reduce the morbidity, then I feel that that's a really worthy endeavor," she said.

The epidemic has only grown in severity over the past several years, prompting President Donald Trump to declare it a public health crisis in October. Almost 50,000 people died from opioid-related drug overdose deaths in 2016, eclipsing other causes of drug overdose. Drug overdose death is now the leading cause of injury death in the United States, eclipsing homicide, suicide, and car crashes; it is the leading overall cause of death in Americans under 50.

Charles Fain Lehman

Charles Fain Lehman   Email Charles | Full Bio | RSS
Charles Fain Lehman is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He writes about policy, covering crime, law, drugs, immigration, and social issues. Reach him on twitter (@CharlesFLehman) or by email at lehman@freebeacon.com.

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