Families pray during a candlelight vigil for victims of drug addiction on August 24, 2017, in Staten Island, N.Y. At Families pray during a candlelight vigil for victims of drug addiction on August 24, 2017, in Staten Island, N.Y. At Families pray during a candlelight vigil for victims of drug addiction in Staten Island, N.Y. At least 107 people died from opioid overdoses in the borough last year, the highest number on record and a 35 percent increase from 2015. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New study reveals just how bad the American opioid crisis has become

Researchers found skyrocketing numbers of overdose cases over the years, and a need to better support patients after they're released.

The stories just keep coming: the all-star athlete whose painkiller habit morphs into a full-blown heroin addiction; the stay-at-home mom who turns to drugs to cope with chronic pain; the long-sober blue-collar worker who gets promoted and thinks he can handle just one more celebratory hit ...

Between those devastating anecdotes and the droves of news broadcasts, articles and tweets on the topic, the evidence is undeniable: America is in the midst of an urgent opioid crisis.

Paramedics treat a woman who has overdosed on heroin on July 14, 2017 in Warren, Ohio. Paramedics treat a woman who overdosed on heroin in Warren, Ohio. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

But it's only now that researchers are beginning to put these anecdotes, articles, tweets and broadcasts into quantifiable terms. Just how many people are dying from overdose? How many survive, but return later to be treated for the same addiction? How many resources are going into caring for addicted patients? How much does it cost hospitals, insurance, patients and their families?

According to a new study from researchers at Harvard Medical School, Ben-Gurion University in Israel and the University of Chicago, deaths from overdoses have nearly doubled over the past seven years. At the same time, the cost of care for patients admitted to the Intensive Care Unit rose 58 percent.

The researchers, which included Ben-Gurion University Professor Lena Novack and Harvard's Dr. Jennifer P. Stephens, analyzed nearly 23 million adult hospital admissions for overdoses on prescription drugs, methadone or heroin at 162 hospitals in 44 states from 2009 to 2015.

"We found a 34 percent increase in overdose-related ICU admissions while ICU opioid deaths nearly doubled during that same period," Novack said, adding that the mortality rates of those patients also increased, especially after 2012.

Jessica, a homeless woman in Philadelphia, says she has tried many times to get treatment for her heroin addiction but couldn't find an available bed. Jessica, a homeless woman in Philadelphia, says she has tried many times to get treatment for her heroin addiction but couldn't find an available bed. (Photo: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

If you thought this news was bad, it gets worse. Novack said her team's overdose numbers might even be on the low side because some patients' admissions records might not be labeled to reflect their addiction.

"Since our team of researchers analyzed admissions rather than a manual chart review, we may not have captured every admission if opioid-related complications weren't coded as such," she said.

If there's one positive takeaway out of such grim news, it's that the higher numbers could also mean that more people are seeking treatment than they used to, or that the community response to overdose emergencies has improved. But the study itself didn't analyze that.

"Our findings raise the need for a national approach to developing safe strategies to care for ICU overdose patients, to providing coordinated resources in the hospital for patients and families, and to helping survivors maintain sobriety following discharge," the researchers wrote.

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