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The Numbers Behind America’s Opioid Epidemic

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Opioid Epidemic overdose map

The Numbers Behind America’s Opioid Epidemic

Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, who are now more likely to die from a drug overdose than from car accidents or firearms. The United States has the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of drug-related deaths in the world.

While opioid abuse is a nationwide problem, there are specific areas that are being hit harder by this epidemic. Using the location data above, from NORC at the University of Chicago, we can see clusters of counties that have an extremely high rate of overdose deaths. Between 2012 and 2016, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio saw a combined 18,000 deaths related to opioid abuse.

A sharp increase in prescribed opioid-based painkillers and the rise of illegal fentanyl – which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin – has unleashed the worst public health crisis in American history.

It’s a problem that can be tough to understand, but by delving into the data, some key observations emerge.

Doctors Prescribed a lot of Pain Killers

Beginning in the 1980s, prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone were heavily marketed as a treatment for pain, and at the time, the risk of addiction to these substances was downplayed. Opioid prescriptions nearly tripled between 1991 and 2011.

opioid sales

Sales of these powerful painkillers are beginning to drop, in part because the risk of addiction has now been widely publicized. Another decelerating factor is the crackdown on clinics and pharmacies that were over-dispensing painkillers, in some cases directly feeding the elicit drug market.

In 2015, nearly 100 million Americans were prescribed painkillers by their doctor. A recent survey showed one-third of people who abused prescription painkillers in the past year got pills directly from a physician.

Source of opioids

This abundance of pills impacts the community at large when excess pills are sold, stolen, or simply given to others. In fact, receiving painkillers from a friend or family member was the most common gateway to abusing opioids.

Fentanyl is Killing a lot of People

If doctors have been prescribing opioids for decades, what is causing this recent spike in overdoses? The answer, for the most part, is fentanyl.

This synthetic opioid presents a problem because it’s extremely potent – it only takes about 2 milligrams to overdose on the drug. Since much of the fentanyl on the market is sourced illegally, doses can and do exceed this amount on a regular basis.

As a result, overdose deaths related to opioids have skyrocketed in recent years:

Overdoses by opioid drug type

Overdoses are the tip of the Iceberg

The thousands of overdose deaths around the country are the most extreme symptom of the opioid epidemic, but the problem runs much deeper.

In 2017, there were over 11 million “opioid misusers” in the United States. To put that number in perspective, that’s equivalent to the entire population of Ohio. In fact, the problem is so widespread, that it’s suspected to be influencing workforce participation rates.

The health care burden of the crisis is also staggering. The cost of opioid abuse ranges from $10,000 to $20,000 in annual medical costs per patient.

The hard truth is that, unless bold action is taken, the opioid epidemic is projected to claim nearly 500,000 lives over the next decade.

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Healthcare

The Future of Nanotechnology in Medicine

This infographic highlights some of the most promising nanotechnology breakthroughs in medicine, from ‘smart pills’ to targeted cancer treatment.

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nanotechnology medicine

The Future of Nanotechnology in Medicine

Around the world, researchers are increasingly thinking smaller to solve some of the biggest problems in medicine.

Though most biological processes happen at the nano level, it wasn’t until recently that new technological advancements helped in opening up the possibility of nanomedicine to healthcare researchers and professionals.

Today’s infographic, which comes to us from Best Health Degrees, highlights some of the most promising research in nanomedicine.

What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at the molecular level. The field combines elements of physics and molecular chemistry with engineering to take advantage of unique properties that occur at nanoscale.

One practical example of this technology is the use of tiny carbon nanotubes to transport drugs to specific cells. Not only do these nanotubes have low toxicity and a stable structure, they’re an ideal container for transporting drugs directly to the desired cells.

Small Systems, Big Applications

While many people will be most familiar with nanotech as the technology powering Iron Man’s suit, real world breakthroughs at the nanoscale will soon be saving lives in healthcare.

Here are a few ways nanotechnology is shaping the future of medical treatment:

1. Smart Pills

While smart pill technology is not a new idea — a “pill cam” was cleared by the FDA in 2001 — researchers are coming up with innovative new applications for the concept.

For example, MIT researchers designed an ingestible sensor pill that can be wirelessly controlled. The pill would be a “closed-loop monitoring and treatment” solution, adjusting the dosage of a particular drug based on data gathered within the body (e.g. gastrointestinal system).

An example of this technology in action is the recent FDA-approved smart pill that records when medication was taken. The product, which is approved for people living with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, allows patients to track their own medication history through a smartphone, or to authorize physicians and caregivers to access that information online.

2. Beating the Big C

Nearly 40% of humans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime, so any breakthrough in cancer treatment will have a widespread impact on society.

On the key issues with conventional chemotherapy and radiation treatments is that the body’s healthy cells can become collateral damage during the process. For this reason, researchers around the world are working on using nano particles to specifically target cancer cells.

Oncology-related drugs have the highest forecasted worldwide prescription drug sales, and targeting will be a key element in the effectiveness of these powerful new drugs.

3. Diagnostics

Medical implants — such as knee and hip replacements — have improved the lives of millions, but a common problem with these implants is the risk of post-surgery inflammation and infection. In many cases, symptoms from an infection are detected so late that treatment is less effective, or the implant will need to be replaced all together.

Nanoscale sensors embedded directly into the implant or surrounding area could detect infection much sooner. As targeted drug delivery becomes more feasible, it could be possible to administer treatment to an infected area at the first sign of infection.

Examples like this show the true promise of nanotechnology in the field of medicine. Before long, gathering data from within the body and administering treatments in real-time could move from science fiction to the real world.

10,000 years ago, man domesticated plants and animals, now it’s time to domesticate molecules.

– Professor Susan Lindquist

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Healthcare

Visualizing Healthcare Spending by Country

Healthcare spending can be measured as a proportion of GDP, by admin costs, and per capita—and the United States comes in first in every category.

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How Much Do OECD Countries Spend on Healthcare?

When you start feeling ill, the first line of defense is typically to have a doctor assess the symptoms—but how much you end up paying for a visit differs greatly by region.

Today’s interactive visualization was created by HealthDataViz consultant Lindsay Betzendahl, who also founded #ProjectHealthViz. The data considers how healthcare spending by country stacks up across the 36 Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD) members, and how it has changed since 2010.

One thing is clear—the United States comes in first place in each category, but that’s not necessarily a good thing:

 🇺🇸 United States🌐 OECD Average
Healthcare Spending (% of GDP)16.9% (#1)8.8%
Admin Costs as % of Health Spend8.3% (#1)*~3%
Per Capita Prices (Current PPPs, USD)$10,586 (#1)$3,992

*Although Costa Rica’s figure was higher in 2016, more recent data is not yet available.

Let’s look at each individual cost category, to see what else we can learn.

What Portion of GDP Goes Towards Health?

Population health is a strong determinant in quality of life. As such, how much a country spends on healthcare as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) can be an important indicator.

The U.S. spends 16.9% of GDP on its healthcare, nearly double the OECD average of 8.8%. That’s also over 4 percentage points (p.p.) above Switzerland, which ranks second with 12.2% healthcare spending by GDP.

The problem? While Switzerland consistently ranks as having one of the best healthcare systems in the world, the U.S. lags behind—which means that expenditures are not always translating into better health outcomes for patients.

Where’s the Money Going?

Looking after the health of millions of people is a lot of work, and this is where spending on healthcare administration and financing comes into play. Funds are allocated to medical resource providers, who manage everything from health records to salaries and insurance bills.

The U.S. spends about 8.3% of its total healthcare expenditures on these complex costs today, which is a marginal increase from 7.5% in 2010. Interestingly, Costa Rica’s healthcare spending on the same metric was even higher in 2016, at 9.5% of the total.

On the bright side, Mexico has been making strides in the past few years: administrative spending plunged from 10.3% in 2013, down to 4.6% in 2017.

Globally, advancements in health-tech are helping to reduce costs by streamlining tedious processes. However, it’s still not enough—and these immense costs trickle down to patients.

How Much Does Each Person Shell Out?

Over the past eight years, a majority of OECD countries have seen their healthcare spending per capita climb, with Luxembourg and Greece being the only exceptions. The average OECD country’s spend was $3,992 per capita in 2018, up from $3,080 in 2010—nearly a 30% increase.

However, the U.S. experiences the most dramatic sticker shock by far. At $10,586 per head, the U.S. average is already more than double the OECD average. What’s more, this is a 33.3% increase from $7,939 in healthcare spending per capita in 2010.

As the U.S. healthcare reform debate around prices and quality of care rages on, it’s important to remember that healthy people are the backbone of any country’s long-term economic growth.

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