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Emergency rooms suffer toll of painkiller addiction

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According to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, prescription opioid overdoses cost hospitals $1.4 billion in healthcare costs in 2010. Between 1999 and 2011, the number of deaths associated with opioids quadrupled, and painkiller overdoses overtook traffic fatalities as a leading cause of death in 2009. As doctors have steadily increased their prescriptions of drugs such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, methadone, and morphine, patients in need of strong painkillers have become particularly at-risk to overdose.

Because opioids are highly addictive and typically lead to tolerance of the drug, some patients are inclined to abuse the drug or seek it out from multiple doctors. Physicians have come under fire for over-prescribing opioids, in part because nearly half of the overdoses occurred on drugs for which patients had prescriptions. Among other changes, California’s Proposition 46 would mandate that doctors check CURES, California’s prescription drug monitoring program, before they could prescribe certain drugs to patients. Yet one statistic from the study gives context to how effective the healthcare system is at treating opioid overdoses: the fatality rate for these overdoses in emergency rooms lay under 2%. As overdoses rise, new drugs that reverse an overdose such as Naloxone are entering the market.

What role do doctors have in prescribing opioid painkillers? Where is the balance between treating pain and dealing with drug addiction?


Michael A. Yokell,  Lead researcher, "Prescription opioids involved in most overdoses seen in emergency departments" published in latest JAMA Internal Medicine journal; Fourth-year Medical School student, Stanford University

Dr. Sean Nordt, M.D., Associate Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine; Medical Toxicologist