The opioid epidemic has proven to be a complex problem, challenging researchers and clinicians for the past two decades. Efforts to understand the factors that contribute to opioid abuse and identify overdose hotspots have often been tedious and flawed. However, there is now growing curiosity about whether artificial intelligence (AI) could be the game-changer needed to put an end to this crisis.
Healthcare is not known for quickly adopting new technologies, often lagging behind in implementation. This reluctance has consequences, with the industry reportedly losing billions of dollars each year due to late or non-adoption of advanced electronic health records. Despite this, public health researchers and biomedical engineers have quietly been working on a revolution in medicine, and addiction prevention and treatment are now benefiting from AI innovations.
The toll of the opioid epidemic is staggering. Since 1999, over 1 million people have died from drug-related overdoses, with 106,699 deaths occurring in America alone in 2021. Approximately 75% of these deaths are linked to opioid use, including both prescription painkillers and illicit drugs like heroin. Despite significant investment in outreach, education, and prescription monitoring programs, the epidemic has remained stubbornly persistent.
Identifying the intricate risks that drug users face has been a challenge for researchers in this field. There is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the drugs individuals will use, how they will administer them, and who they will use with, potentially leading to overdose situations. Moreover, practitioners grapple with conflicting federal and state guidelines on effective treatments for opioid use disorder and the ever-changing landscape of drug supplies contaminated with synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
AI advancements in addiction prevention and treatment focus on using machine learning to identify individuals at risk of developing opioid use disorder or relapsing. For instance, researchers have developed techniques to identify at-risk individuals on platforms like Reddit, allowing peers and advocates to intervene with educational resources. Wearable devices have been created to detect signs of overdose and administer naloxone, an overdose-reversing agent. Tools to detect hazardous contaminants in drug supplies have also shown promise in reducing fentanyl-related overdoses.
However, there are concerns about the ethical implications of AI in this context. The use of facial recognition technology to identify individuals who appear high could potentially lead to discrimination and abuse. Moreover, there is a risk of disinformation being embedded into AI systems, misleading drug users about the risks associated with substance abuse.
Artificial intelligence (AI) holds immense promise in combating the opioid epidemic by identifying at-risk individuals, preventing overdoses, and detecting hazardous contaminants in drug supplies. However, ethical concerns and the need for public oversight are crucial in ensuring the responsible use of AI technology in addressing this crisis.
From the early fascination with human-like technology in films like “Metropolis” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” to the current reality of AI advancements, it is clear that humanity has a complex relationship with technology. It is crucial for researchers, clinicians, patients, and the broader public to collaborate in keeping AI accountable and using it to overcome humanity’s greatest challenges, such as the opioid epidemic.