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How Digital Technology Could Fight the Opioid Crisis


America’s battle with opioid addiction is an uphill one. But a mix of innovation in digital health and good, old-fashioned medicine could help us fight it, according to a top pharmaceutical executive.

“In over 20 years, we haven’t had new innovations in the pain space. Right now, opioids are the most effective for acute pain relief. But they’re not meant for chronic pain,” said Christi Shaw, senior vice president of Eli Lilly and president of the drug giant’s Bio-Medicines unit, during the Fortune Brainstorm Reinvent conference in Chicago Tuesday.

Shaw was referencing the various kinds of chronic pain suffered by millions of Americans due to migraines, arthritis, and other persistent, day-to-day aches. Those can be debilitating conditions over the long term. But there are several ways that we can harness the power of digital health technology—such as using biometric and activity trackers—to alleviate these conditions, according to Shaw.

“We could actually look at using digital technology in followup [care],” she said. “Patients are prescribed a week of opioids … perhaps they don’t need more if they are already at that acceptable level. We can also use digital technology in the prevention of pain,” she said. Shaw said algorithms could predict migraines before they actually happen, allowing someone to use smart apps in their house to close the window shades and dim the lights before arriving home.

These kinds of innovations could be particularly effective in conjunction with next-generation pain medicines, such as a new class of migraine drugs that Eli Lilly and similar companies are currently developing.

“These digital technologies can be killer apps. And if you combine them with pharmaceutical technologies, they can be painkiller apps,” said Shaw.



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