How the Air Force is Looking for Solutions to the Opioid Crisis

30.04.18 09:17 PM By Jennie Hempstead

The Reality in Dayton

In June of 2017, Dayton, Ohio became known as the “overdose capital of America” by MSNBC following the special series, “One Nation Overdosed.” Solutions and best practices couldn’t come fast enough.

Fast forward to April 2018. Dayton’s mayor, Nan Whaley, gathered with other local leaders at CareSource, an insurance provider headquartered in Dayton, to share best practices and hear about what Ohio officials have learned while trying to respond to the public health crisis. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who hoped to bring insights back to the community he serves, told attendees at the round table discussion that Dayton could help the rest of the country by sharing what they know.

It’s clear that solutions are hard to come by and everyone is looking for one. In just one year, overdoses from opioids jumped by about 30 percent, according to a report released March 6, 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Locally, the opioid crisis contributed to a total 566 overdose deaths in Montgomery County last year. The good news is that overdose deaths appear to be declining; a Dayton Daily News article, dated April 3, 2018, said that overdose deaths are at a three-year low. While the number of overdose deaths is down, the number of people seeking treatment is not declining, signaling a change in the way the substances are used. In other words, the problem is far from over.

The press has told harrowing stories of those addicted, the families affected, and the community organizations tackling this public healthcare crisis. But what about the military? Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, located in Dayton, is Ohio’s largest single employer with a workforce numbering approximately 27,000 people; 7000 active duty and nearly 13,000 civilians. 90,000 retirees within a 100 mile radius also use the services offered by WPAFB. How has the military been affected by the opioid crisis? And are there technological solutions, specifically from the Air Force Research Laboratory, that could help prevent addiction or assist with recovery?

Affects on the Military

Mick Hitchcock believed that the military might be struggling with this epidemic as well. As the AFRL Program Manager at Wright Brothers Institute, an innovation institute partnered with AFRL via a Partnership Intermediary Agreement (PIA), Mick wanted to dig deeper. Heidi Longaberger, a competitive integrated intelligence researcher at WBI started digging. In the white paper “THE OPIOID CRISIS AND TECHNOLOGY – FOCUS ON THE MILITARY” (January 2018), Longaberger outlines some startling statistics: in 2014 alone, the VA issued 1.7 million prescriptions for opioids to 443,000 vets to be taken at home. The number of veterans with an opioid-use disorder dramatically spiked 55 percent between 2010 and 2015, with about 68,000 veterans, or 13 percent of veterans taking opiate prescriptions, living with addiction. A 2011 U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) study revealed that veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdoses than non-veterans.

These findings indicate that military personnel, specifically veterans, are uniquely at-risk for opioid addiction and overdose.

What the Air Force is Doing to Help

The Air Force Research Laboratory is a research and development organization that is also embedded with the 711th Human Performance Wing. That means that solutions from the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, along with technology developed in the Human Systems Directorate might be a great starting place for innovative solutions. Following Hitchcock's hunch, Wright Brothers Institute leveraged their Divergent Collaboration model to see how the Dayton region and the 711th HPW might examine the mutual problems surrounding the opioid crisis.

Inspired by Divergent Collaboration

WBI’s Divergent Collaboration (DC) Workshop Model has helped many Air Force clients gain insights to challenging problems, by concentrating on the “problemspace”. This means that over the course of a two-day workshop, participants do not jump to any immediate solutions. Rather, they spend the most time making sure they are focusing on the right problem. To date, many panels in cities across the country have convened to discuss the opioid crisis, but few have included veterans in the discussion. Using the DC model, WBI sought to bring together several experts to inform the problemspace, with special input from the military. Melissa Wilson, a nurse scientist for the Aeromedical / En Route Care division, served as the “problem owner” from the 711th HPW. Creating an effective problemspace requires a wide swath of participants with divergent backgrounds and expertise.

The workshop was held on March 13-14, 2018 at Wright Brothers Institute – Springfield St. All aspects of the opioid epidemic were discussed, which concluded with 14 follow up workshops to help inform solutions in all phases of addiction. In the next few months, WBI will work with the community to divide and conquer these workshops, creating leadership in multiple sectors, including the Air Force.

The benefit of these future workshops lies in the potential for a variety of solutions. Opportunities could emerge for small businesses, entrepreneurs, other federal labs and industry giants to become a partners, allowing Dayton to lead the nation in solutions for this complex and overwhelming crisis.