Kosali Simon

IU researchers studying the impact of the opioid epidemic on Indiana's workforce

Economic consequences of the opioid epidemic are strongly influenced by effects on the workforce. Two broad categories of challenges are evident: general workforce reductions due to high levels of opioid use, and increased demand for opioid treatment professionals.

Although both types of workforce shortages are seen in many communities affected by the epidemic, decisionmakers lack information about where problems are most severe and what factors influence these problems. Additionally, numerous policies and programs have been implemented to address these workforce challenges, yet the effectiveness of these interventions is unknown.

For IU’s Responding to the Addictions Crisis Grand Challenge initiative, a project led by Kosali Simon, associate vice provost for health sciences, Katy Börner, Victor H. Yngve Professor of Engineering & Information Science and Olga Scrivner, an instructor in data science, is not only addressing these questions but also translating the answers into data visualizations that can help decision makers interpret, understand and communicate insights about hiring and training during the opioid epidemic.

Mapping workforce trends relative to opioid use requires pulling together and analyzing data from multiple separate sources, including employment data, job postings data, educational enrollment and graduation data, opioid prescription data, overdose data, treatment data and workforce policy data, each of which are collected and maintained by different organizations or agencies.

Simon, an economist, is integrating and analyzing these data sets, while Börner, an information scientist and engineer, assesses the most effective means of translating these data into easily-understandable graphical representations. Scrivner, a data analytics expert, is working with IU students to build actionable data visualizations; she recently served as a client for graduate students in Börner’s Information Visualization class. The class project results featured data visualizations of drug death rates, opioid prescription rates and job postings related to health care for three different time frames to show changes over time and allow for comparisons of patterns.

Simon is also working closely with community partners like Centerstone, a mental health care and addiction recovery treatment provider with locations in five states, to ensure that the team is asking the right questions and using metrics that correspond to the on-the-ground situations that communities and employers experience. For example, one challenge is defining the “treatment workforce.”

Labor market data has no category that is specific to treatment for substance use disorders; these services are lumped together with mental health care in a broad category that also excludes many treatment-related services such as housing assistance and transportation to and from appointments. Developing a strategy for accurately measuring this workforce will be a major contribution to state- and nationwide efforts to ensure adequate human resources for treatment.

The research team is also investigating how varying state-level policies such as coverage of addiction treatment under Medicaid or constraints on opioid prescriptions are affecting employment outcomes. Results will be useful for community, state and federal efforts to help those recovering from opioid addiction maintain or regain employment and ensure that employers can find and retain workers in areas hard hit by the epidemic.

The team is particularly eager to partner with Indiana organizations and agencies to gather, analyze and present locally relevant information that can guide policy development and resource allocation. Interested representatives are welcome to contact Simon: simonkos@indiana.edu.