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Emergency Rooms See Doubling Of Visits Related to Non-Medical Narcotic Use

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, June 17, 2010

Hospital emergency rooms are grappling with an alarming increase in the number of patients whose illnesses involve non-medical use of opiod or narcotic pain relievers, according to two new federal reports.

Oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone products, in particular, resulted in an increased number of visits to the emergency department between 2004 and 2008, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, or DAWN report, published by a division of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The DAWN report estimated national trends through sampling of information submitted by 231 hospitals in 2008.

Across the country, 1.6 million ED visits were estimated to have been necessitated by the misuse and abuse of all drugs in 2004, but 2 million visits in 2008.

Visits due to illnesses caused or exacerbated by those substances increased 152%, 123%, and 73%, respectively, between 2004 and 2008.

According to the report, the estimated number of ED visits involving non-medical use of narcotic pain relievers rose from 144,644 in 2004 to 305,885 in 2008, an increase of 111% overall. "Visits more than doubled for both male and female patients (increasing 110% and 113%, respectively)" and among both patients younger than 21 or older than 21.

Other products whose misuse, overuse, or abuse resulted in a medical emergency include fentanyl, morphine, and hydromorphone products.

The DAWN report includes statistics on patients in four categories who sought emergency care because of non-medical use of drugs. They include:

  • Patients who took more than the prescribed dose of a prescription medication, or more than the recommended dose of an over-the-counter medication or supplement.
  • Patients who took a prescription medication prescribed for another individual.
  • Patients who were deliberately poisoned with a pharmaceutical drug by another person.
  • Patients who misused or abused a prescription medication or an over-the-counter medication or dietary supplement.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which elaborated on the statistics from the DAWN report, rates of overdose deaths involving prescription drugs increased rapidly between 1999 and 2006, but this new DAWN report quantifies the added non-fatal morbidity.

The findings "highlight the need to strengthen prevention and education programs designed to reduce the misuse of prescription drugs," the DAWN report concluded. "Increased efforts are needed to educate the public about the risks of misusing narcotic pain relievers and how to recognize possible symptoms of abuse."

Additionally, "ongoing efforts are needed to keep doctors and other healthcare professionals informed about emerging drug problems and to help them understand the importance of exercising care in prescribing pain relievers and monitoring their patients or clients for signs of misuse."


Cheryl Clark is senior quality editor and California correspondent for HealthLeaders Media. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.
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