New study finds number of U.S. deaths from opioid overdoses may be under-reported


Dr. Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, makes a great point when he says getting accurate data is a crucial first step in battling the opioid crisis. "This is particularly important when we have scarce funds to allocate and so would want to target them at the hardest hit areas,"
he told NBC News.  – Philip Bane


One of the reasons we are losing the war against drug addiction, Ruhm suggests, is that we don't have reliable data on the drugs causing the overdoses.

The professor studied death certificate data from the Centers for Disease Control -- information reported by the states -- and found that in 2014, no specific drug was identified in 19.5% of fatal overdoses. That number was even higher in 2008 at 25.4%.

Some states, it turns out, reported the specific drug on 99% of death certificates.  But Pennsylvania, Indiana, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama did so only about half the time, he learned.

What does it mean?

Based on Ruhm's research and calculations, the number of opioid overdoses is a lot worse in some states – Pennsylvania , for example – than previously thought. Which to his point is important information because it helps identify where need is greatest.

His study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Bold action needed
This all came out on the heels of a call from the presidential opioid commission to declare a state of emergency to deal with the opioid crisis. The goal would be to force Congress to focus on funding, according to a Washington Post piece on the commission's report, and to "awaken every American to this simple fact: if this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will."

Earlier this week New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took bold action, announcing the state health department will help off-set the cost of medication that reverses opioid overdoses for people with prescription health insurance coverage. Those who don't have coverage can already receive the lifesaving medication naloxone for free.

"This first-in-the-nation program will help put this lifesaving treatment in more hands and is one more prong in this administration's efforts to battle heroin and opioid abuse," Gov. Cuomo said. "This is one more step toward a stronger, healthier New York for all."

The Naloxone Co-payment Assistance Program is funded by New York State's Opioid Overdose Prevention Program.

Ohio's grant program generating high-tech ideas
Ohio Gov. John Kasich's call for scientific breakthroughs to battle the opioid crisis last spring – with an Aug. 31 deadline for proposals – has attracted interest from hospitals, universities and assorted medical device, software and pharmaceutical developers, according to the Associated Press. Up to $12 million in R&D grants is available.

Proposals to date are varied, from new technology for administering naloxone to using virtual reality in the treatment of pain to avoid opioids altogether.

Ohio leads the nation in deaths related to opioid overdoses, based on 2015 data.

More on this topic:
IBM Watson's new task: helping reduce substance abuse relapses
More weapons in the battle against opioid addiction: Will they work in your city?

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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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