Opioid Crisis Study Finds Number Of Fatal Overdoses Actually Higher Than Officially Reported

The nation’s current opioid crisis may be worse than previously thought. According to a researcher at the University of Virginia, the number of overdose deaths from opioids is likely much higher than what is being reported.

After reviewing thousands of death certificates issued between 2008 and 2014, Dr. Christopher Ruhm discovered deaths from opioids are 24 percent higher than current reports indicate. Specifically, the death rate from heroin was 22 percent greater.

Before the study, nine out of 100,000 deaths were linked to opioids in 2014. However, after Dr. Ruhm crunched the numbers based on his analysis, the number increased to slightly over 11. Heroin overdoses went from just over three per 100,000 to four.

Cited by NBC News, the study pinpointed several states where opioid overdose deaths were underreported.

“Opioid mortality rate changes were considerably understated in Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Jersey and Arizona. Increases in heroin death rates were understated in most states, and by large amounts in Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Alabama.”

During Dr. Ruhm’s examination of data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), he could not find any specific drug listed when someone died of an overdose in 19.5 percent of the 2014 death certificates surveyed. The 2008 information was even worse, with over 25 percent lacking any identification of the drug causing the overdose.

Many more people are dying of opioid overdoses than actually being reported.
Recent research suggests opioid-related overdoses are much higher than official records report. [Image by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

Some states, particularly Rhode Island and Connecticut, did not name a drug on 99 percent of the death certificates examined. Other states, like Indiana, Mississippi, and Louisiana performed better by naming the drug nearly 50 percent of the time.

Ohio has been particularly hard hit by the opioid crisis. The state currently ranks fifth-highest in the nation for fatal overdoses, with 18.2 deaths out of 100,000 being opioid-related. Using figures from Dr. Ruhm’s survey, Ohio should rank fourth in the country, at 20.5 per 100,000.

Current reports indicate Ohio has the most heroin overdose deaths in the United States with 10.4 out of 100,000. Yet, Ruhm’s numbers show actual heroin deaths closer to 11.2 per 100,000, a small yet significant change.

In West Virginia, the opioid epidemic is gravely out of control. The Mountain State has more deadly opioid overdose cases than any other state in the nation. In 2014, 29.9 deaths out of 100,000 were associated with opioids, with heroin responsible for 8.8 fatalities. The study found that West Virginia’s number should be 30.3 fatal drug overdoses, nine of those attributed to heroin.

Since most death certificates do not name the drug which led to the overdose, Dr. Ruhm had to create a prediction model using information provided by other death certificates that did include the drug’s name. While not perfectly accurate, the method made it possible to better estimate the number of opioid deaths when the drug’s name was missing.

Per a report from Patch, Ruhm contends this approach gives a better representation of what is really going on by not disregarding deaths that leave the drug’s name blank.

“Essentially what we’re doing now is ignoring those cases, which is clearly wrong. You have to have correct facts to come up with good policy.”

One in three people take a prescription painkiller.
<> on March 23, 2016 in Norwich, Connecticut.

The opioid crisis report from the University of Virginia comes just days after the National Institute on Drug Abuse published a survey revealing Americans’ love affair with prescribed opioids. Strikingly, nearly one in every three Americans took some type of prescription painkiller like Vicodin in 2015. Even more alarming, many of them took the drug without a doctor’s permission.

Current statistics from the CDC indicate 15,000 people died from an opioid overdose in 2015. However, if Dr. Ruhm’s figures are correct for previous years, the opioid crisis currently facing the U.S. is undoubtedly much worse than what the official numbers show.

[Featured Image by John Moore/Getty Images]