Researchers find sharp rise in opioid-related hospital deaths

New research from Health Affairs finds a fourfold rise in the number of deaths from opioid-related hospitalizations. Mortality rates were particularly high among middle-aged Medicare beneficiaries.

The research, led by Harvard Medical School and published in the latest issue of Health Affairs, looked at statistics covering hospitalizations due to opioid abuse between 1993 and 2014. By the end of the study period, patients were four times more likely to die following an opioid-driven hospitalization than they were in 2000.

Mortality rates among patients hospitalized for all other reasons remained relatively steady during the same period.

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While the opioid crisis has drawn increased attention from the federal government, including a high-profile media campaign under development at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, efforts to stem the tide of opioid-related deaths have been hampered by a lack of basic data, according to Zirui Song, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School.

The study’s results mirror broader trends seen in opioid use throughout the society, including a rise in use among disabled Medicare beneficiaries, as well as among “middle-age, socioeconomically disadvantaged white populations.”

The authors posited that the rising availability of stronger opioids like fentanyl and the relative affordability of heroin compared to higher-cost prescription opioids likely explain some of the increase. They also noted that the increasing mobilization of the healthcare industry in response to the opioid epidemic may be concentrating the number of acute cases seen in hospitals by dealing with an increased number of opioid poisoning cases in outpatient settings, emergency departments or other situations that do not require admission.

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“These results are just scratching the surface of what health professionals and policymakers could use to help patients and the public, and the picture they paint is concerning,” Song said in a statement. The clearest suggestion the authors noted in the data was a continuing need for more resources to aid at-risk communities as they respond to the crisis.