Dr. Rahul Gupta, state health officer and commissioner for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health, has recently been named “West Virginian of the Year” of 2017 by local newspaper Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Gupta is a family medicine doctor in Charleston, W.V. He received his medical degree from Delhi University College of Medical Sciences and has been in practice for more than 20 years.
The Indian American serves as the West Virginia State Health Officer and Commissioner. Previously, Gupta served as the health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, the state’s largest local health department. Additionally, Gupta served as the executive director and health officer of the Putnam County Health Department.
Prior to working in West Virginia, Gupta was an assistant professor of medicine at Meharry Medical College and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He also served as assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
Gupta and his staff are currently working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on what he called a “post-autopsy autopsy.” He is compiling data to develop an overdose profile that identifies factors shared by the 881 West Virginians who fatally overdosed on drugs last year, according to a news release.
The ‘West Virginian of the Year’ said he hopes the project will provide a blueprint for saving lives.
“We wanted to learn from people who passed away to avoid what’s been happening year after year,” Gupta said in a statement. “What we’re finding out is that, while we may only have a single chance, there appear to be opportunities to prevent fatal overdoses in the state.”
To date, Gupta and his research team have discovered 86 percent of those who fatally overdosed had interacted with health care providers within the past dozen months.
Of those ages 25 to 34, about half of those who overdosed and died had spent time in jail during the previous 12-month period, the news release said.
“There might have been missed opportunities to work with them at the time of their release,” Gupta noted.
He said over 70 percent of West Virginians who fatally overdosed were covered by Medicaid within the past year. Also, 65 percent had received prescriptions for controlled substances like pain pills within a year of their death. About 40 percent had such prescriptions 30 days before they overdosed, it said.
West Virginia has the highest overdose death rate in the nation.
“Oftentimes, we end up just counting deaths,” Gupta said. “But now we’re trying to learn from those who passed away.”
Gupta and his office also established a panel of public health experts to develop a “rapid opioid response plan.” The plan is due in mid-January.
The office has distributed 16,000 doses of naloxone to emergency responders, developed standards for syringe exchange programs, set up an Office of Drug Control Policy and worked with a national group that represents health officials to share West Virginia’s opioid-fighting efforts, such as the analysis of people who overdosed, the news release noted.
“The deaths are the most important piece we can do something about immediately,” Gupta said. “It’s an attempt to utilize an evidence-based, data-driven approach to reduce the overdose deaths.”