Making data “FAIR” to combat the opioid crisis

On Oct. 6, Susan Gregurick, Ph.D., associate director for data science and director of the Office of Data Science Strategy (ODSS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), delivered a plenary keynote at the virtual, 19th annual Bio-IT World Conference. Focusing on the importance of making data findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable (FAIR), she explained how that is just the beginning of exciting and innovative open science.

“Sometimes it feels like when we get our data to be FAIR, that we’ve run a race,” Gregurick said. “But it really is just the beginning of a lot of interesting and great science.”

Gregurick delivered her keynote alongside Rebecca Baker, Ph.D., director of the NIH Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative. Baker agrees that using FAIR data is an important step in opioid addiction and pain research – both in current research but also for questions we don’t have answers to yet.

“The goal here is to enable research beyond what the HEAL Initiative itself is doing,” Baker said. “A large part of that goal is making the data FAIR.”

Both Gregurick and Baker stressed the importance of data ecosystems. Data ecosystems utilize interconnected data platforms to make diverse data types available to those who need it. Whether that is researchers, clinicians, or patients, harmonizing diverse and wide-spread data types into accessible and interoperable cloud-based platforms provides everyone with the data they need in an easy-to-use and quickly accessible format.

“We have to create science that’s for everybody,” Gregurick said.

To demonstrate the importance of data being FAIR, Baker showed the landscape of data use and interoperability in combatting the opioid crisis.

“Opioid prescription is often the beginning of misuse,” Baker said. She and her team at the NIH’s HEAL Initiative are using innovative data science tools to answer questions about pain—one of the biggest factors in opioid over-prescribing.

Creating a data ecosystem where researchers and clinicians can quickly access information such as current opioid prescriptions, patient pain experiences, and non-opioid pain control methods is critical to combatting over-prescribing.

She also posed questions that don’t have answers yet, such as what clinicians might offer instead of opioids—from other non-addictive prescription drugs to methods like acupuncture—and how making data available will drive patient-centered solutions.

“I think five years ago, if we were launching HEAL and I had said I want the data to be reusable and accessible it would have seemed too hard,” said Baker. “Now it feels like something we should accomplish.”

Gregurick agreed. “If you can imagine it, you can make it so.”

This page last reviewed on March 23, 2023