Marin County, by most measures, is among the healthiest counties in California.
But every two weeks on average in 2012 and 2013, someone in Marin died of an accidental prescription drug overdose, often from taking too many pain-killing opioid drugs such as Oxycontin.
In response, members of the Marin community formed a grassroots organization to come up with ways to reduce that death rate.
Calling themselves RxSafe Marin, the group focused first on collecting data.
“We didn’t know what prescription pattern we had within our own county,” said Dr. Matthew Willis, the county’s public health officer. “We were flying blind as we tried to address this issue.”
State agencies and county officials collect piles of health data but the information is not always fresh or relevant enough to address the problems at hand. So local ad hoc groups increasingly are collecting health data on their own.
They’ve begun sharing information at an annual conference called Open DataFest. The most recent conference, in Sacramento, included attendees such as Walk with Friends, a walking club in Sacramento, and Waste Not OC, a coalition working to address food insecurity in Orange County.
RxSafe Marin was able to mobilize law enforcement, emergency services, hospitals and health officials to track deaths, arrests, hospitalizations, recovery rates and demographics related to prescription drug misuse and abuse.
“Data is informing our movement,” Willis said. “It’s been motivating to our partners to see a common goal.”
One finding: Although Marin has just 252,400 residents, about 412,300 prescriptions are written in the county annually — a tally Willis considers high.
RxSafe Marin was able to estimate that 1 in 4 Marin adults suffers from some degree of drug or alcohol misuse.
The research helped in developing communitywide prescription guidelines for emergency rooms and primary care clinics.
The Marin County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring the pharmaceutical industry to share responsibility for a drug “take-back” initiative aimed at safe disposal of prescription drugs.
Earlier this month, Marin County reported a 41 percent decline in narcotic prescription doses since 2013 in its Medi-Cal population. How much of that can be directly attributed to the new data is impossible to determine — but it isn’t hurting, Willis said.
Willis added that while Marin has the money, the interest and bandwidth to develop its own metrics system, other counties even more affected by prescription drug abuse don’t have the same resources.
The California Health Care Foundation is working on just that, providing assistance to 16 opioid safety coalitions in 24 counties across California. (California Healthline is an editorially independent publication of the California Health Care Foundation.) The goal is to give counties the tools to track their own data on health issues such as opioid abuse and then translate it so it is useful to the general public, said Kelly Pfeifer, director of high-value care at the California Health Care Foundation.
Gathering information at the county level yields a better understanding of local culture and gives insight on what course of action will make the most impact, she said.
“The more you own data collection, the more equipped you are to making changes,” Pfeifer said.