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University of Kentucky health team will use AI to predict opioid overdoses

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University of Kentucky researchers plan to use artificial intelligence to help crunch the numbers on statewide datasets. The goal is to predict where surges in overdoses could happen next.

State data show annual deaths from drug overdoses in Kentucky increased in 2020 and again in 2021. And most of those losses involved an opioid.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky plan to use artificial intelligence to try to predict and prevent those opioid overdoses.

Jeff Talbert, a professor at UK’s Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy, is one of the leaders of the new project. He said they’ll develop a system to analyze statewide data on things like ambulance trips and prescriptions for controlled substances.

And they’ll use AI to crunch the numbers and help estimate where the next spikes in overdoses could happen.

“That’s the goal of the project: To be able to look for hotspots,” Talbert said. “These things kind of surge up and down, based on a lot of different factors. And so that’s what the AI models will help us do is to determine where there’s going to be an increase or a decrease.”

Their hope is that communities eventually can use those predictions to take action to reduce harm to community members.

That could include making better-informed decisions about how to spend their portions of the money Kentucky receives from settlements with pharmaceutical firms that fueled the U.S. opioid crisis.

It also could include helping community groups determine where to concentrate their efforts in a particular week or month. For example, they might distribute more overdose-reversing Naloxone to people who use drugs if an increase in overdoses is predicted in their county.

Their big vision, according to Talbert, is “to create this population-based, near-real time, statewide surveillance system, and take that to communities so that they can say: What is the information that you need in your community to help make decisions about how to allocate resources or where to focus your attention?”

UK’s new initiative is called Rapid Actionable Data for Opioid Response in Kentucky, or RADOR-KY. Talbert said the National Institute on Drug Abuse is fueling the first phase of the five-year grant with $3.1 million in funds.

The idea to create a data-driven preventative system grew out of UK’s work on another federally funded, opioid-focused initiative: The HEALing Communities Study.

That study has been using various approaches to try to greatly reduce overdose deaths in certain Kentucky counties, including Jefferson County.

They’re building on the groundwork laid by that ongoing project.

Morgan is LPM's health & environment reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.

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