Opioid Overdoses Straining Nation’s Intensive Care Units, Study Warns

The growing opioid abuse and overdose epidemic in the United States is beginning to strain intensive care units (ICU) to their breaking point, according to the findings of new research. 

In a study presented at the American Thoracic Society 2016 International Conference and conducted researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the University of Chicago, researchers indicate that in-hospital deaths from opioid related admissions have nearly doubled, taxing hospital staff, resources and driving healthcare costs related to narcotic painkiller overdoses.

Researchers found that opioid overdoses greatly strain the intensive care unit (ICU) and critical care teams. The team analyzed data for discharges from Vizient, Inc Clinical Data Base/Resource Manager for patients over 18, between 2011 and 2015. They focused on billing codes to determine admissions for opioid related overdose deaths among all hospitalizations and ICU admissions.

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The data focused on 272 hospitals, a total of 17.6 million adult admissions and 3 million, or 17%, required ICU care. Of those, more than 41,000 admissions were opioid overdose-related.

Researchers found the incidence of narcotic painkiller overdose-related hospital admissions and narcotic painkiller ICU admissions both increased between 2011 and 2015.

The in-hospital death rate among opioid overdose-related hospital admissions increased by 64% from 2011 to 2015. Among ICU patients with narcotic painkiller related overdose admissions, the death rate increased from 6.4% in 2011 to 11.4% in 2015, nearly doubling.

The findings may not be too surprising, considering the data that has emerged recently concerning the national narcotic painkiller epidemic. Research published in 2015, concluded opioid overdose deaths across the country had doubled since 2003.

Researchers also noted a 42% increase in hospital discharges for opioid overdoses since 2009. In Pennsylvania and North Carolina the number of ICU discharges for opioid overdoses nearly doubled over the past 7 years.

Narcotic painkiller overdose patients are 30% more likely to need acute dialysis and have also contributed to a 46% increased healthcare costs from 2011 to 2015.

Despite the increasing overdose deaths related to opioid, prescriptions for opioid painkillers nearly doubled over the past 10 years, while non-narcotic painkiller prescriptions have flatlined. This comes after national neurologist specialists warned doctors to prescribe opioids with caution for chronic non-cancer pain.

Study authors emphasize the need for increased training for doctors in addiction management, a focus on creating strategies that support patients and families in the hospital, and the transition for overdose patients from critical care to outpatient addiction treatment; as well as a need for national funding to support the effort.

Primary care doctors are the main prescribers of narcotic painkillers. To that end, the FDA is considering imposing mandatory training before they are allowed to prescribe powerful narcotic painkillers to patients, a move many say should have come sooner.


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