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Assessing the opioid overdose epidemic

In recent years, doctors and policy-makers have become aware of the dangers of prescription opioid medications like methadone, oxycodone and hydrocodone (which is sold as OxyContin or Vicodin). In a study published in this month’s JAMA Internal Medicine, Stanford medical student Michael Yokell and Stanford surgeon Nancy Wang, MD, took a new approach to quantifying those dangers.

Many previous studies of the toll of opioids looked at death certificate data and examined trends among deaths due to opioid overdoses, including street drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers. The new study looked at emergency department admissions and found that more than two thirds of ER visits due to overdoses were related to prescription opioids, while heroin overdoses accounted for 16 percent. Moreover, only about 2 percent of cases that made it to the ER died, but more than half the patients needed further hospitalization.

The study also found that those admitted to the emergency room because of opioid overdoses are more likely to have conditions such as chronic breathing problems, heart problems or mental health issues. Yokell explained that it’s important for doctors to be aware of the possibility of overdose and consider prescribing alternatives or discuss the risk of overdose with patients.

Beyond providing better access to emergency medical care and treatments for patients, an important next step to resolving the problem of opioid misuse is to establish or improve statewide prescription monitoring programs. For example, California has a prescription drug-monitoring database called CURES, but not all doctors actively use the program. “We can do a better job of making that database more widely used by physicians in the state.  We need more doctors to sign up and use it. It’s a valuable resource,” said Yokell.

Additionally, many people get access to prescription opioids via fraudulent prescriptions or from dealers that have illegally obtained the drugs - sometimes from breaking into and raiding pharmacies. “It’s important to keep in mind that good prescribing practices are one component of an effective strategy. There are many other ways for people to get their hands on [prescription opioids] and use them inappropriately.”

Although fixing things on the prescription side is important for managing the opioid overdose epidemic, Yokell notes that it’s not enough. Cases that make it to the ER are likely to survive, but Yokell noted that the fear of criminal charges often results in people avoiding medical care for overdoses caused by opioids and that getting this group better access to emergency services and treatment could improve outcomes. Paramedics and doctors have access to the drug naxolone, marketed as Narcan, which is safe and effective treatment for opioid overdose. But “people don’t call 911, so they are dying,” Yokell told me.

Previously: Stanford addiction expert: It’s often a “subtle journey” from prescription-drug use to abuse, Increasing access to an anti-overdose drug and A focus on addiction, the country’s leading cause of accidental death
Photo by Sharyn Morrow

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