Can AI Solve the Opioid Crisis?

Opioid Crisis

There can be no doubt that opioid addiction and overdoses are real and that something needs to be done to combat this issue; the number of deaths resulting from overdoses of opioids has quadrupled since 1999 and increasing in 2017 to 100 a day.  Considered to be the main driving factor of this spike are prescription opioids, which this addiction to opioids has become a US public health emergency (

IBM Watson Health and Measure Action Prevent (MAP) Health Management have been reported to have joined forces to combat this issue.  Since other efforts have yet to show any solution to this epidemic, the question becomes can AI solve the opioid crisis?

What are Opioids?

Although this health problem exists throughout the United States, some people may be unclear as to what opioids are, especially if he/she has never used any.  Opioids are drugs that target an individual’s nervous system to ease pain; however, continued use and abuse may lead to becoming physically dependent while experiencing withdrawal symptoms.  While many opioids come in the form of tablets, they also can come in liquid or in capsules ( 

Another opioid can be used in the form of a patch known as Fentanyl; the amount can vary as I currently am prescribed to use a 25 mcg/h patch every 48 hours.  Though I was able to reduce the amount I was on from 125 mcg/h every 72 hours gradually, withdrawal symptoms I go through after the 48-hour mark are an increase in pain sensations and intense spasms in my legs; went through two separate spinal cord surgeries and would not be able to function without using my opioid medicines to relieve my pain and other medications for leg spasms.

What is IBM’s Watson?

The Watson computer system made its’ debut in 2011 as it was initially programed to compete on the famous quiz-show Jeopardy as it challenged former winners Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter; Watson was able to win the first-place prize valued at $1 million.  Since then, it has been reprogramed to handle other tasks and is currently being tasked to tackle the opioid crisis. 

IBM’s Watson was developed to be a question answering computing system that can apply advanced machine learning, natural language processing, automated reasoning, informational retrieval and knowledge representation technologies to the field known as open domain question answering (  Watson was named after IBM’s original CEO and industrialist Thomas J. Watson.

How Watson’s Artificial Intelligence Can Help in the Opioid Crisis

The hope is that Watson’s expertise in data can assist in curbing addiction and substance abuse within the US; naturally, this would be a huge undertaking not just for one person but for multiple people as well. The aim of this partnership with MAP Health Management and IBM Watson Health is to complete the present gap in long-term care, utilizing technology and data to comprehend which patients are at the highest risk of relapsing and to deploy effective treatment and intervention resources ( 

The partnership is designed to assist healthcare insurers, addiction treatment experts and care managers to stop relapses with the assistance of the cognitive computing engine that Watson possesses; since it can continuously learn, MAP can then identify individuals at risk of relapsing.  Since the goal is succeeding in better outcomes, this data can help healthcare providers to intervene at a quicker rate.

Will this Partnership in AI Succeed?

According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly 570,000 people annually in the United States die from the use of drugs; this breaks down to over 480,000 fatalities related to tobacco, about 31,000 from alcohol use, close to 22,000 from overdosing using illegal drugs and about 23,000 overdoses from using prescription pain relievers.  This is not a question of will this partnership succeed but that it must.  Considering the number of deaths attributed to opioids continues to rise, Artificial Intelligence may be the only way to stop the opioid crisis to becoming a full-blown disaster.