Prescription drug overdoses, a dangerous side effect of the nation’s embrace of narcotic painkillers, are a “substantial” burden on hospitals and the economy, according to a new study of emergency room visits.
Overdoses involving prescription painkillers have become a leading cause of injury deaths in the U.S. and a closely watched barometer of an evolving health care crisis. Little was known, however, about the nature of overdoses treated in the nation’s emergency rooms.
A new analysis of 2010 data from hospitals nationwide found that prescription painkillers, known as opioids, were involved in 68 percent of overdoses treated in emergency rooms. Hospital care for those overdose victims cost an estimated $1.4 billion.
The estimated 92,200 hospital visits were more than five times the number of deaths involving opioid painkillers that year.
“What this study shows us is opioid overdose deaths are just the tip of an iceberg,” said Andrew Kolodny, an addiction doctor who helped found Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.
In a report published online Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers analyzed data from the Nationwide Emergency Department Sample and adjusted the raw figures to generate national estimates.
Researchers found that fewer than 2 percent of the overdoses treated in emergency rooms were fatal. But in more than half the cases, victims had to be admitted to the hospital.
“Further efforts to stem the prescription opioid overdose epidemic are urgently needed,” the researchers concluded.
Painkiller deaths quadrupled between 1999 and 2011, mirroring a sharp rise in the number of prescriptions for such drugs. In 2009, overdoses involving painkillers pushed drug fatalities past traffic accidents as a cause of death. And in 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared an epidemic.
The crisis had long been blamed on pharmacy robberies, teenage pill poppers and the “black market.” But a 2012 Los Angeles Times study showed that physicians played an important role in prescription drug overdoses. The Times analysis of 3,733 fatalities found that drugs prescribed by physicians to patients caused or contributed to nearly half the deaths.
The new study tallies some of the costs of overdoses. Roughly 41 percent of the patients who went to a hospital after taking prescription opioids were treated in the emergency room and released; 55 percent were admitted to the hospital. And 4 percent were transferred to an acute care hospital. Among those who became hospital inpatients, the average stay was 3.8 days, and their average charges came to $29,497. For patients who were released without being admitted, the average charges were $3,640. Altogether, the cost of treating both groups was nearly $1.4 billion in 2010.
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