The Alberta government is hiring a medical analyst in an attempt to better understand why an increasing number of Albertans are falling victim to the deadly opioid crisis.
The NDP government's opioid medical analyst will mine the chief medical examiner's records for information on the victims of all suspected overdoses in an attempt to identify trends and possible solutions in the ongoing drug epidemic.
Karen Grimsrud, Alberta's chief medical officer, said the initiative was spurred by the need to better understand who is dying and under what circumstances. The new position will be filled "as soon as possible," she added.
"The purpose of this is to look further at these deaths," Grimsrud said in an exclusive interview with CBC News.
"Maybe there is some information there that will help us tailor our interventions to address the crisis."
The new protocol will include comprehensive data anaylsis on the occupation of the deceased, their previous health diagnoses and drug use history.
It will involve looking through the chief medical examiner's records for more information on a deceased person's mental health history and whether they were using drugs alone at the time of the fatal overdose, Grimsrud said.
"That additional information will drive what kind of interventions we will have," she said.
'It's obviously a priority'
The profiles will help shape government programming and funding for addictions programs.
The investigations may eventually expand to include records from partner agencies like police and EMS, Grimsrud said.
Fentanyl, 100 times more powerful than morphine, is the leading cause of opioid overdose deaths in Alberta. The drug killed 113 people in the province in the first three months of 2017.
In 2016, 363 people in Alberta died from fentanyl overdoses.
But reports from Alberta Health show deaths from carfentanil are also on a sharp increase. Carfentanil, which is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine, was found in 21 of the 113 deaths in the first three months of 2017.
In 2016, 196 people died from an opioid that was not fentanyl.
In May, the province set up a a 14-member commission with a $30-million budget to deal with the skyrocketing numbers of deaths caused by overdoses of fentanyl and other opioids.
The Minister's Opioid Emergency Response Commission will be chaired by Grimsrud and Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Alberta.
Government health officials are most interested in the demographics of drug overdose victims outside the inner city, Grimsrud said.
Little is known about addicts in suburban areas.
'That's the ultimate goal here, is to better tailor our interventions to address this crisis.' - Karen Grimsrud, Alberta's chief medical officer
"If we find out, for example, that a lot of our deaths that are occurring outside the downtown core in Edmonton and Calgary are people with a history of an occupational injury, perhaps that's where we need to look," Grimsrud said.
"That's the ultimate goal here, is to better tailor our interventions to address this crisis. It's obviously a priority for us given our concern around the number of overdose deaths we're seeing."
The investigation will be conducted through the Ministry of Health, and the new medical analyst will report directly to the Chief Medical Officer.
The new Alberta government protocol follows the announcement of a new data collection policy for overdose deaths in B.C.
Announced this week, coroners in B.C. are now required to fill out an 11-page document after every suspected opioid death. Data gathered includes occupation, previous health diagnoses and drug use history.
It's the latest in an expansion of data collection and largely the reason the B.C. government declared a public health emergency in April 2016, said an official from the B.C. Ministry of Health.
Mike Ellis, opposition MLA for Calgary West, has long been calling for the Alberta government to make a similar declaration.
"If we can find out why people are doing this, then we as a government in Alberta can deploy our resources properly," Ellis said.
In B.C., authorities also obtain data around non-fatal opioid incidents such as 911 calls and emergency room visits.
In a statement, the B.C. Ministry of Health said that the data is being used to help the province better understand underlying factors and help implement prevention strategies and interventions.
'You can't see what you're not looking at'
Dr. Hakique Virani, one of Edmonton's leading experts on the opioid crisis, said Alberta needs to significantly expand its surveillance to understand what populations are using opioids, what substances are most deadly and who is most at risk.
The data could help government officials understand how frequently drug dependence begins with prescribed medications, or why existing treatment programs haven't worked.
Without surveillance, harmful assumptions about the scope of the crisis will be made, Virani said.
He would like to see more monitoring of not only overdose deaths, but more comprehensive data collection on all opioid drug users.
"You can't see what you're not looking at, and you can seriously misinterpret the picture if you're not looking at enough of it," Virani said. "I think that doing more substantial death reviews than we have been is important.
"If we want to direct our resources smartly and provide support support when and where and with whom the risk is greatest, we really do need to understand the stories of the people that ultimately died."