Pain pill overdose deaths dip, but health officials remain on alert

Published June 2, 2009 8:27 pm
Health » Budget cuts will end two prevention campaigns.
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Forty fewer Utahns died of an accidental pain pill overdose last year compared to 2007, the largest drop in more than a decade.

But 277 Utahns died preventable deaths. And for the health official on the front lines of fatal drug overdoses, the decrease doesn't mean Utah has a handle on what is being called an epidemic.

"A day without a possible drug overdose around here is an extremely rare event," said chief medical examiner Todd Grey. Half of the deaths his staff was working on Monday and Tuesday -- four out of eight -- were suspected drug overdoses.

And while prescription drug deaths dropped, illicit drug deaths increased 44 percent, to 89. "This is an ongoing problem. And a year-to-year drop in one component of that problem doesn't mean we can all pack up and go home happy," Grey said.

The Utah Department of Health announced Tuesday the 12.6 percent drop in unintentional prescription drug deaths. Officials can't yet explain the dip, though they'd like to attribute it to their efforts to educate doctors and the public about proper use of pain pills. That will take further analysis.

And both prevention programs will cease at the end of the month.

Funding was set aside by the Legislature for the past two years, but the annual $150,000 allocation stops this fiscal year, which ends June 30. So does most of the program's other funding, which totaled $500,000.

The money paid for TV and radio spots called Use Only As Directed. It also funded presentations to doctors on how to use the state's Controlled Substances Database to identify patients who may be abusing drugs and ones with other prescriptions that could be harmful in combination with pain pills.

The goal of both efforts was to reduce deaths by 15 percent from 2006 to 2008. Instead, there was a 10 percent drop.

Still, "I do think the education has made a difference," said Kim Bateman, medical director of the health care improvement group HealthInsight, which had the contract to educate doctors.

While Bateman still needs to collect and analyze data to see if doctors changed their prescribing habits after the training, he believes they have.

And as one of the trainers, he said he would continue to teach fellow doctors for free. "All of our speakers are kind of on a mission," he said.

Funding will continue through December for a research project that is under way to determine risk factors for prescription pain pill deaths. The medical examiner's office is interviewing family members of the dead to determine whether they had a history of substance abuse, where their medications were obtained and other circumstances surrounding the death.

"Maybe it will give us an insight as to how best to attack the issue," said Grey. Or maybe not.

"I don't really know which thread I could pull that would make the whole tapestry of this problem go away," he said. "I don't even know if this research is going to be able to answer that question with a simple, 'Here's what we have to do.' "

Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, is happy with the results of the health department's efforts. He sponsored HB137, which provided the two years of funding. Over the summer, he hopes to study whether the media campaign had an effect in reducing the deaths. If so, he'd like to find more money to keep it going.

And he noted the money also helped pay for the development of guidelines on when and how doctors should prescribe pain pills.

"That's where the problem starts, is prescriptions given in a way that may be inappropriate," he said. "I'm not trying to blame doctors here."

Efforts to combat drug overdoses will continue even without state money: Daw sponsored bills in the past two sessions to change the Controlled Substance Database. Local health departments have separate funding to work on the issue.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration launched the Utah Pharmaceutical Drug Crime Project to end the sale, purchase and theft of prescription drugs and continue public education efforts on the dangers of pain pills.

And the state Department of Environmental Quality set up a program to help people dispose of their pain pills at police stations and hazardous waste collection events.

"There are great efforts that will keep going," said Erin Johnson, the health department's program manager over the to-be defunct pain medication program.

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Utah prescription overdose deaths in 2008

At least one non-illicit drug overdose death occurred in 22 of Utah's 29 counties.

Males and females were affected about equally, with females accounting for 48 percent of deaths and males accounting for 52 percent.

Utah prescription overdose deaths in 2008

At least one non-illicit drug overdose death occurred in 22 of Utah's 29 counties.

Males and females were affected about equally, with females accounting for 48 percent of deaths and males accounting for 52 percent.



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