SXSW: Using Data Analytics to Combat the Opioid Crisis

May 21st, 2019

This article is by Dean Stoecker and originally appeared on the Alteryx Engine Works Blog here:


“In order to change an existing paradigm, you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.”
― Buckminster R. Fuller


In March, I attended South by Southwest (SXSW), a popular annual conference in Austin, Texas exploring what’s next in music, film and interactive technology. It’s quite an experience to be surrounded by so many brilliant and enthusiastic minds, and moving to see so much passion in one place. I was invited to the conference to moderate a panel featuring three brilliant, thoughtful healthcare data professionals, who spoke about how they are using data and analytics to tackle one of the biggest challenges our nation currently faces — the opioid crisis.


Before diving into the solutions and programs our panelists have put in place, I want to put the opioid crisis into perspective. When I started the conversation in Austin, I asked everyone in the room to raise their hand if they had a friend or loved one who suffers from substance use disorder. Far too many people raised their hands… but unfortunately, none of us were properly shocked.


Here’s why: Across the U.S., more than 200 people die every day due to opioid related overdoses. In fact, during the one-hour time slot we had for our panel discussion, statistics forecasted that eight people would die. Opioids have now surpassed auto accidents and gun violence as a leading cause of death in this country.

In 2017 alone, an estimated 12-15 million Americans were misusing prescription opioids. The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population but consumes more than 80 percent of the world’s opioids. This crisis costs American taxpayers $100 billion a year.


We call it an epidemic, which speaks to how serious and widespread the opioid crisis is, but it’s deeply personal. The emotional toll on families, relationships and opioid addicts themselves has repercussions we can’t measure in American dollars. It is just astonishing, heart-wrenching and unacceptable.


I’m a strong believer that software shouldn’t just make people money — business leaders like myself have a duty to ensure that the powerful products we create go out into the world and do good. That’s why we started Alteryx for Good, our charitable arm that enables nonprofits, students and our own employees to leverage data analytics for good and fuel remarkable social outcomes. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) hosted a code-a-thon, “Connecting Data to Save Lives,” and we sponsored a team to help discover data-driven solutions to the opioid epidemic.


In fact, the HHS Code-a-Thon was the match strike that lit my passion for solving this problem, opening my eyes to the enormity of the task. Our team of 28 ACE partners and associates worked throughout the night, coding and analyzing data to find ways to use data to combat the crisis. I couldn’t be prouder of what they accomplished. Although the code-a-thon was a success in many ways, it was just a first step. From then on, Alteryx has proactively engaged with organizations from both the public and private sectors to help reduce opioid addiction through data and analytics—as I often quote from Buckminster Fuller, it needs to be all of us or none of us.


Step one is having the conversation, which is why we took this discussion to the stage at SXSW, bringing together a panel of three healthcare data professionals who have dedicated their recent careers to improving the healthcare system and solving the opioid crisis through data science and analytics. Let me tell you about them.


Dr. Mona Siddiqui, chief data officer at HHS, brought to the panel her extensive experience in both clinical medicine and data science. She finds creative and innovative ways of using the massive amounts of data HHS has access to and was charged with putting together the aforementioned code-a-thon. Dr. Siddiqui spoke about the five-point opioid strategy launched by HHS late last year, in which data is a major pillar. Through data, HHS aims to improve the understanding of the crisis by supporting more timely, specific public health data and reporting, as well as break down data silos that prevent us from making connections and creating insights about public health.


John Savage, director, quality improvement and patient safety at the Colorado Hospital Association (CHA), brought his unique perspective to the panel. He outlined the Association’s quality improvement effort to treat pain in a safer and more clinically effective manner, reducing the administration of opioids in emergency departments. Using data effectively via the Alteryx Platform, CHA created a pilot program that allowed them to measure success and redirect efforts efficiently. In the end, across 10 different hospitals in the pilot program, they saw a reduction of 36 percent in opioid prescriptions. Amazing, especially given the fact that four out of five heroine addicts say they start their addition with prescription pain medication.


Lynsie Daley, senior data analyst at Intermountain Healthcare and Alteryx customer, talked about Intermountain’s mission to reduce the number of opioid tablets prescribed in their network by a whopping 40 percent in 2018. She and her team built a dashboard that can monitor, in real-time, prescription habits by doctor, a patient’s prescription history, and the types of prescriptions issued based on procedure or health concern. She brought to the panel real-world experience of the complexity of the data analyzed and how to turn that complexity into predictive analytic models to identify risk scoring for both patients and doctors.

The SXSW panel discussion was a huge success. Between the panelists and the thoughtful audience questions, I like to think that we are one small step closer to solving this vital challenge — and that we may have inspired a few more people to join us on this journey.


If you’re curious about the intersection of data, analytics and healthcare, or want to know more about how you can lend a hand to the problem, I hope you’ll take the time to watch the entire discussion. Talking about substance use disorder is a tough subject. Far too many people have either experienced it themselves or have watched as someone they love struggle.


Watch the 13-minute recap of the SXSW Panel: 




Let’s bring together the incredible technology our country produces with the incredible people in the healthcare industry, so we can figure out how to tackle this problem, together.