Why the Rise in Prescription Drug Overdoses?

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Between 2001 and 2014, there was a five-fold increase in the number of overdose deaths from benzodiazepines.
Between 2001 and 2014, there was a five-fold increase in the number of overdose deaths from benzodiazepines.

Overdose deaths from prescription medications are at an all time high, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Instute of Drug Abuse.1 Rates nearly tripled between 2001 and 2014 overall. For benzodiazepines, there was a five-fold increase, and for opiate pain relievers, there was a 3.4-fold increase. While there was also a six-fold increase in heroin-related deaths and a 42% increase in cocaine-related deaths, the most rapidly growing drug-related problem in the United States in prescription drug overdose.2

There are multiple factors involved in these elevated rates, including an increased dependence on prescription medications.

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"Opioid use has quadrupled in the US over the past decade without a clear clinical need, and this ties to the increased availability of prescription controlled substances," according to Kenneth D Mandl, MD, MPH, a professor of biomedical informatics and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Computational Health Informatics Program (CHIP) at Boston Children's Hospital, and his colleague, Mei-Sing Ong, PhD, a research fellow at CHIP.

According to findings that appeared in the American Journal of Medicine last month, rates of Part D Medicare recipients receiving opioid prescriptions for more than 90 days per year increased from 4.62% in 2007 to 7.35% in 2012.3 There was significant variation between states: While the 2012 data showed a prescription rate of 2.84 for New York, the rate in Utah was 10.93%.

"Individual characteristics independently associated with prolonged use included older age, female gender, white race, low income, living in a lower-education area, and comorbidity of drug abuse, rheumatoid arthritis, and depression," the authors reported, and prolonged use "increased the odds of opioid overdose-related emergency room visits or hospitalization by 60%."

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