Frequent ER Visits Could Flag Fatal Drug Overdose

Meghan Ross, Associate Editor

Regular trips to the emergency department could be a red flag for deadly prescription drug overdose.

Regular trips to the emergency department (ED) could be a red flag for deadly prescription drug overdose.

New research published in the Annals of Epidemiology studied 2732 ED patients who subsequently died from an overdose and compared them with another 2732 who did not.

After adjusting for demographic factors and history of pain, substance abuse, and psychiatric disorders, mortality risk was 4.9 times the rate for those with 2 ED visits in the previous year, 16.6 times the rate for those with 3 ED visits, and alarmingly 48.2 times the rate for those with 4 or more ED visits.

Given these findings, the researchers said intervention programs should be targeted at patients who frequent the ED in order to cut down the number of fatal drug overdoses.

“Emergency department visits may serve as an important window of opportunity for identifying patients at heightened risk of prescription drug overdose and for implementing evidence-based intervention programs, such as providing these patients and their families with take-home naloxone and drug treatment referral,” said senior study author Guohua Li, MD, DrPH, professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health and director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University, in a press release.

Nearly 60% of drug overdose deaths involve prescription medications, and previous research has shown prescription opioids—the leading cause of injury-related mortality—comprise roughly two-thirds of ED visits.

The current study’s data was derived from the New York Statewide Planning and Research Cooperative System from 2006 to 2010 for ER patients aged 18 to 64 years, and then matched with mortality data. The researchers also found those who were male, white, aged 35 to 54 years, or had a history of substance abuse or psychiatric disorders were at greater risk for fatal prescription drug overdose.