Between 1991 and 2004, deaths due to opioid overdose more than doubled in Ontario, an alarming trend that corresponds with an increase in prescriptions for oxycodone, a narcotic pain killer derived from extracts of opium. What’s more, the introduction of oxycontin—a long-acting form of oxycodone—in 2000, was associated with a five-fold increase in opioid-related deaths, according to research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
The study, conducted by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto, evaluated prescription data from 1991 through 2007, as well as total drug and alcohol-related deaths from 1991 to 2004. Researchers found that, prescriptions of all opioid pain relievers, which include codeine, morphine and oxycodone, increased by nearly 30% during the study period, while prescriptions specifically for oxycodone increased by 850%.
At roughly the same time, deaths throughout Ontario due to opioid overdose more than doubled, from nearly 14 deaths per million residents in 1991, to more than 27 deaths per million residents in 2004. In the study data, researchers ultimately narrowed to 3066 deaths with complete records that were attributed to opioid overdose. Of those, more than half of were accidental, and most were due to prescription opioid overdose than heroin overdose.
While the trends of opioid-related deaths are alarming on their own, what gave researchers additional cause for concern was the missed opportunity for intervention. Of the more than 3,000 people studied who died of an opioid overdose, two thirds had seen a physician—and been given a prescription for narcotic pain killers—at least once in the weeks before their death. As the researchers conclude: “The frequency of visits to a physician and prescriptions for opioids in the month before death suggests a missed opportunity for prevention.”