People Hospitalized for Opioid-Related Conditions Are Dying at Higher Rates

A study out of Harvard Medical School found the mortality rate is on the rise, particularly for white patients from low-income areas.

A doctor at the end of a hospital corridor with a hospital bed in the foreground

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The mortality rate among people hospitalized for opioid-related conditions has quadrupled since 2000, according to a new study.

Harvard Medical School researchers, whose work was published in the December issue of the journal Health Affairs, found that in 2000, roughly .43 percent of patients hospitalized for opioids died; by 2014, the rate had climbed to 2.02 percent.

And it’s not just the mortality rate that’s changed, but also the distinct cause of hospitalization. Though the volume of people taken in for treatment stayed fairly constant during the studied time period, the reason those patients ended up at the hospital shifted from drug abuse to drug poisoning. Fewer people diagnosed with opioid dependency are being rushed to the hospital, and more patients are afflicted by heroin poisoning, which is a more fatal condition.

Zirui Song, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a physician at Mass General, led the research and told PBS he thought the increasing drive to help patients in their communities could explain the climbing mortality rate. If people are being treated in clinics or other facilities before they’re taken to the hospital, by the time they actually get to a place like Mass General, they’re more likely to be sicker and at a higher risk of not surviving.

Another potential explanation for the growth in heroin and opioid poisoning hospitalizations is the “growing potency of heroin and the rising use of fentanyl, a drug that makes people sicker faster,” Harvard Medical School said in a statement.  

Researchers also homed in on the populations most at risk of dying because of opioids. White people ages 50-64 who receive Medicare benefits and live in lower-income areas are more likely to be hospitalized with fatal conditions. Over 2,000 people in Massachusetts died of opioid-related causes last year, and the Health Policy Commission found the number of heroin-related hospital discharges more than doubled in the Bay State between 2007 and 2014.

Governor Charlie Baker recently unveiled a sweeping legislative package to fight the state’s opioid crisis. The CARE Act targets treatment accessibility, drug abuse prevention, and educational expansion. Recent data has proven optimistic here, as opioid-related fatalities are down 10 percent in 2017 as compared to the same time period in 2016. However, Song, the Harvard researcher, noted the importance of continuing to implement new strategies to stem the crisis.

“As the United States combats the opioid epidemic, efforts to help hospitals respond to the increasing severity of opioid intoxication are acutely needed, especially in vulnerable and disabled populations,” Song said in a statement.