Data Science Improving Outcomes for Vulnerable Populations

Addressing the complex, human struggles of addiction and mental health requires targeted policies. Advances in data analytics are uncovering gaps in social infrastructure and may be the key to tackling these issues.

Julian Somers, professor of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University—whose research addresses mental illness, addiction, crime, security and human displacement by using advanced methods to identify risks and examine the effectiveness of interventions—is trying to answer some of the toughest questions around the efficacy surrounding prevention and treatment programs that serve marginalized and vulnerable populations.

Somers’s team analyzed every individual in British Columbia’s criminal justice system from 1998 to 2015 in the first comprehensive study exploring the links between medication and crime. The results provided insights that were previously unattainable due to a lack of data, which prevented robust objective analyses required to draw definitive conclusions. He discovered that patients in the B.C. criminal justice system were taking methadone, an effective treatment for opioid dependency, for less than 50 percent of their doctor’s prescribed length. If they maintained their methadone treatments, violent and non-violent crime rates dropped by 33 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

This insight stresses the importance of finding solutions to ensure patients in the criminal justice system continue to take their medication for the prescribed length of time. Thanks to his work, one possible solution is rethinking how we provide housing and support for the homeless population that suffer from mental health issues.

His works shows that that those suffering from mental health issues boosted their medication use when they were placed in apartments scattered across Vancouver that are accompanied with a specialized outreach team to assist with daily living. Currently, the most common type of assisted housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are single apartment buildings with built-in social and medical support, which does not significantly boost medication use.

Somers’s desire to improve lives comes from his experience with his own family. His father was an alcoholic who lived his final years in a Vancouver Downtown Eastside hotel with no support before dying from an alcohol-related disease.

"My dad’s story is the same as many others," says Somers. "He was a self-educated Irishman involved in local theatre. He was literate and had a house in Point Grey. It wasn’t just one single thing but a series of events and missed opportunities that put him on a trajectory terminating in precarious housing, untreated illness and premature death."

"Homeless people with mental disorders are grossly disenfranchised," says Somers. "As a society we need to build a social scaffolding to reclaim these lost people. A scaffolding of new social ideas, a framework of thought, so people can be guided in their social behaviour and actions."

According to Somers, patients in the justice system with substance and mental health issues cost taxpayers $60,000 year over year. By applying analytical approaches to more robust datasets, Somers is uncovering better pathways to address the complexity of the challenges people like his father faced while ensuring Canada’s investments in our social infrastructure are targeted and produce the desired outcomes. He is helping public health practitioners create precise policies and programs that produce targeted outcomes that benefit society as a whole.

That is the power of using data for good.

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