PHOENIX — Citing state laws on epidemics, the state’s top health official wants Gov. Doug Ducey to give her more powers to deal with opioid overdoses, including the ability to identify and track individual patients.
In a memo to the governor, Dr. Cara Christ wants daily reports of suspected cases of deaths from both prescription and nonlegal forms of opiates. Christ told Ducey it will “allow for real-time tracking of the severity of the epidemic.”
But Christ also wants Ducey to order doctors to give her agency something on a daily basis it does not get now at all: reports of cases where someone has overdosed on the drug.
More to the point, Christ wants all health-care providers to report “patient-specific information” about suspected opioid overdoses, including name, gender and date of birth if known.
“This information will allow Arizona Department of Health Services to implement patient tracking, if necessary,” she said in her memo to the governor.
Ducey is expected to sign the new executive order as early as Tuesday, June 13.
The request comes as health officials struggle to get a handle on not only the rapidly increasing use of the drug, both legally and otherwise, but a spike in deaths. Health officials report 790 people died of opioid overdoses last year, an average of more than two a day.
Agency spokeswoman Holly Ward said her boss believes that having more real-time data might help the health department figure out how to reverse the trend. But that still leaves the question of how having that information will make a difference.
“That remains to be seen, that remains to be answered,” she said. “That’s a fair question.”
But Ward said it’s a good starting point, particularly with data lagging as much as a year behind.
“What we will be asking for will give us a much better picture that we just don’t have right now,” she said. And that, Ward said, should lead to some solutions that have so far eluded health professionals.
“I don’t think this is a situation where we already have the answer,” she said.
“We can try to make a lot of guesses,” Ward explained. But she said that, without more data, “they won’t be very informed guesses.”
That all deals with trends. But Ward said the nature of the problem — and the number of deaths — also requires individual patient tracking.
“There is a solid correlation of how many times an opioid user has been admitted or taken to the hospital for an overdose before they die,” she said. “It’s something like three times.”
What patient tracking would do, Ward said, is enable someone to get to that patient sooner — before they die.
“That would help us to potentially have intervention sooner,” she said. “In a public health emergency response, our goal is to save lives.”
Ward said it might not be anyone from her agency that intercedes.
“But it could be one of the many partners that would have that ability based on that data,” she said.”
She said none of this would lead to public release of anyone’s name, citing federal laws protecting individual health records.