Student maps Saskatchewan’s growing opioid deaths: ‘It’s heartbreaking’

Click to play video: 'Why a student mapped Saskatchewan’s growing opioid deaths'
Why a student mapped Saskatchewan’s growing opioid deaths
WATCH: Saskatchewan Polytechnic student Dan Richert talks about why he created a spatial analysis based on relevant data regarding opioid-related deaths in the province – Jun 5, 2021

Dan Richert has used his map-making skills to illustrate the “heartbreaking” opioid crisis in Saskatchewan.

The Saskatchewan Polytechnic student chose an issue he was passionate about for an assignment while taking the geographic information science (GIS) certificate program.

Read more: Fentanyl possible factor in recent suspected overdose deaths: Saskatoon police

“Over the years, I’ve followed the opioid crisis, especially in Saskatchewan here and every year it’s getting worse. I’ve had friends who’ve lost loved ones to an opioid overdose. I’ve got other friends who are worrying about loved ones overdosing so no one should be in that situation,” Richert said.

“If you look at the fentanyl deaths from 2013 on, like, it’s increased drastically … we’re not doing too great and I certainly know people that have lost loved ones so it’s definitely, it’s heartbreaking.”

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Using publicly available drug toxicity data from the Saskatchewan Coroners Service, he created a spatial analysis based on relevant data regarding opioid addiction and opioid-related deaths in the province.

“I specifically used fentanyl deaths from 2013 to 2021, as well as overall drug toxicity deaths in 2020 and 2021,” Richert said.

“I’m assuming the drug toxicity deaths, they include fentanyl, but they also include things like meth or so, which is not an opioid. So drug toxicity deaths could include any drug.

“Fentanyl is so ubiquitous and it’s such a big problem. They broke it down into four types of fentanyl from 2013 to 2021, and you can see the fentanyl deaths from 2013 to now increase drastically.”

Read more: Regina police report 4 apparent overdoses causing death in span of 3 days

Chief coroner for Saskatchewan, Clive Weighill, said the province had 171 confirmed and suspected drug toxicity deaths from Jan.1 to June 2.

“The record, right now, is 340 from (2020) and if you compare the year before that, it was only 177,” Weighill said.

“If you looked at trajectory through the year, we’re probably going to hit up around, if it keeps on like this, up around the 400 mark (in (2021).

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“There’s so many myths, a lot of the people that we’re seeing from the coroner’s point of view or people in their 30s and 40s. So it’s not a young person’s problem. It’s not people that are homeless … this really is right across the province through different ethnicity and different ages.”

Weighill said Richert’s map is helpful but both noted some important information was not publicly available to better communicate the problem in Saskatchewan.

“By far and large, we’re seeing a lot of overdoses that luckily don’t end up with a death … (that) number far exceeds the deaths of actual drug overdoses that luckily do not end up in death because of naloxone and some medical aid,” Weighill said.

“It would be handy to be able to start the layer … the information that we’re seeing from police where there isn’t a death so you can see where the problems are.

“Deaths is only one small portion of what’s happening with the drug overdose issue here.”

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan’s chief coroner says public opioid information lacking near-deaths'
Saskatchewan’s chief coroner says public opioid information lacking near-deaths

Richert hopes his map gets into the right hands and it’s used to help deal with the opioid crisis.

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“The future of the project would just be using it to really fine-tune resources. GIS has the ability to help easily coordinate local and provincial resources to combat a problem that’s very much local,” Richert said.

“Each community has different unique needs and so if GIS is in the right hands and this project gets in the right hands, it can quickly fine-tune the data to find the appropriate solution for a specific problem. That’s really the beauty of GIS, is its accessibility. It’s much more easily understood than, say, a list of numbers.

“It’s obvious that Saskatchewan has an opioid problem and my hope is that this is just the beginning of GIS work where we can possibly help better communicate this problem and fine-tune solutions to end the crisis because that’s what it is. It is a crisis.”

While pointing out he doesn’t work in the field of medicine, Richert said not enough is being done for people that struggle with opioid addiction.

“Naloxone can reverse the overdose and in some places it’s free and some places it’s available for purchase and that was part of my map to show those places but it’s not free or available for purchase everywhere,” Richert said.

“A lot of the First Nations places don’t have naloxone available for free.”

Read more: Opioids an increasing public health concern in Saskatchewan: minister

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The Saskatchewan Ministry of Health it discussions regarding the Take Home Naloxone program, including expanding partnerships with community pharmacies across the province are ongoing.

It added free take-home naloxone kits are available at 45 sites in 30 communities and Indigenous Services Canada also provides free kits and training to Saskatchewan First Nations.

“Our government recognizes that addressing overdoses in Saskatchewan cannot be a one-size-fits-all strategy,” read a statement from the ministry.

“And that is why we continue to collaborate with stakeholders across the province to provide a continuum of mental health and addiction services that focus on prevention, awareness, harm reduction, education and treatment, including targeted interventions for opioids.

“The ministry is investing a record-high total of $458 million for mental health and addictions services in 2021-22.”

Government officials said the ministry said and the Saskatchewan Health Authority have similar tools available to inform health system planning, including the ArcGIS software used in the student’s project.

Richert said he’s working with Sask Polytech and the office of applied research and innovation to explore some future funding opportunities to continue the project.


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