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UT schools launch first digital platform to track drug overdoses in Texas

The new digital reporting and surveillance system aims to provide a more complete picture of the overdose crisis in Texas.

AUSTIN, Texas — Dell Medical School and the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin have partnered to create Texas' first statewide system to collect drug overdose data.

The new digital reporting and surveillance system is called Project CONNECT – not to be confused with Capital Metro's public transit plan – and it aims to provide a more complete picture of the overdose crisis in Texas. The data collected can then be used to move resources to areas and people that need them.

The project is funded by the Texas Targeted Opioid Response (TTOR) program at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The Project CONNECT team has already conducted a four-month pilot with harm reduction groups in Travis, Williamson, Bexar and El Paso counties. The team is now preparing to launch the platform statewide.

Kasey Claborn, Ph.D., is the lead researcher on the project, an assistant professor at both Dell Medical School and the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and a Steve Hicks fellow in addiction and recovery services. She said based on anecdotal evidence, between 50% and 90% of overdoses in Texas go unreported.

"One of the biggest hurdles to solving this crisis is the lack of accurate, consistent and timely statewide data available on both fatal and nonfatal overdoses," she said.

She also said the reporting gap – and the uncounted overdoses it represents – isn't limited to opioid use. 

"We've been seeing a rise in stimulant, cocaine and meth overdoses within the last five years, which has been amplified during COVID," Claborn said.

To improve overdose reporting, Dell Medical School worked with Google Cloud partner Maven Wave to develop a pilot reporting site, TxCOPE.org: Texans Connecting Overdose Prevention Efforts. It's an application and web-based digital platform designed to track overdose data by a variety of groups, gathering information on things like demographics, overdose event details and the use of drugs such as naloxone to reverse overdoses.

The Project CONNECT team also worked with community advisory boards at the four pilot sites to identify obstacles to accurate data collection. In addition, the team interviewed more than 100 people in the communities, including those who use drugs, harm reductionists, first responders and health care workers.

According to UT, the knowledge gained from those advisory boards, as well as the pilot study, will help the team create an implementation protocol that can be scaled statewide. The team aims to have that protocol ready for launch by early 2022.

Learn more about the project.

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