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Are Opioid Overdose Death Statistics Accurate?

Are Opioid Overdose Death Statistics Accurate?

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

Author: Shernide Delva

The opioid epidemic is a major crisis.

We hear different statistics every day about how many people are dying from opioid overdoses, but how are these statistics calculated? Just how accurate are opioid overdose death statistics?

Researchers from the University of Virginia wanted to get to the bottom of this, so they examine six years’ worth of death certificates to determine the accuracy of opioid-related death statistics.

It turns out, the number of people dying from opioid overdoses may be WORSE than what we are told. Their research found the calculations for opioid overdose fatalities may be vastly underestimated.

A closer examination of death certificates from 2008 to 2014 led Dr. Christopher Ruhm to the conclusion that opioid death rates could be up to 24% higher than previously estimated.

“Opioid and heroin involved mortality rates were 24% and 22% greater than reported rates,” the study says. “The differences varied across states, with particularly large effects in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Louisiana.”

Dr. Ruhm discovered a major problem with the way the statistics are collected. He found that death certificates often list “unspecified drugs” as the official cause of mortality, and do not specify opioids. Therefore, reported opioid fatality rates don’t always count those deaths, which make up close to one-fifth of overdoses.

Ruhm used existing data to determine what percentage of those unspecified deaths might be opioid-related and recalculated the numbers accordingly. While some states like Rhode Island and New Hampshire listed the particular drug about 99% of the time, Pennsylvania listed specifications only about half the time.

Therefore, Pennsylvania- which was ranked number 32 in ODS by the CDC- actually had the seventh-most opioid overdoses in 2014.  Although the estimated number may be surprising, for the most part, the indication as to where such deaths are most concentrated is still in line with existing data.

“The corrected death rates demonstrate that opioid involved mortality was concentrated in the Mountain States, Rust Belt, and Industrial North—extending to New England—and much of the South, whereas heroin deaths were particularly high in the Northeast and Rust Belt, but less so in the South or Mountain States,” the study notes.

These findings come just after the presidential opioid commission’s “urgent recommendation” to “declare a national emergency” to address the country’s opioid problem.

Ruhm says having the most accurate opioid statistics is crucial to developing new policies and strategies to reduce opioid fatalities.

“My message to members of a presidential commission would be that getting the most accurate statistics possible is a crucial first step towards developing policies aimed at stemming the fatal drug epidemic,” Ruhm told NBC. “This is particularly important when we have scarce funds to allocate and so would want to target them at the hardest hit areas.”

This is not the first time indications have suggested that the opioid overdose crisis may be worse than numbers show. In the spring, the CDC combed through Minnesota death records and came to similar conclusions.

“It’s quite concerning, because it means that the epidemic, which is already quite severe, could potentially be even worse,” Dr. Victoria Hall, the Minnesota-based CDC field officer behind the spring study, told CNN at the time.

“While my data doesn’t support a percent that we’re underestimating, it puts out the question: Is there something we need to look into further?”

Overall, what these recent studies suggest is that the number of opioid overdoses occurring in this country may be significantly WORSE than what we read. This only solidifies the fight for treatment and new policies to help lower these fatalities.

The time to seek help for your opioid addiction is now. These numbers are not anything to take lightly. We are in the middle of an opioid crisis. The good news is there is help out there. If you feel out of control, please reach out. We want to help. Call now.

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