Opioid-related overdose deaths decreased last year in Utah by almost 20 percent, according to data released Monday by state agencies.

Prescription opioids were behind the bulk of fatalities in 2017, killing 237 of the 360 Utahns who died from either opioid painkillers or heroin. As a result, much of the state’s intervention has focused on the prescribing behavior of doctors.

Now state officials will be tracking that behavior more closely with new software with real-time monitoring, designed to show health and law enforcement officials where opioid deaths are "clustering," said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who announced the 2017 figures at a news conference Monday.

“We’ll be able to see doctors overprescribing very quickly,” Cox said.

The monitoring also will show more quickly which communities are disproportionately affected.

“We have certain counties where there’s more [opioid] prescriptions than people,” Cox said, though he did not identify those counties.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The state Department of Commerce, which oversees licensing for medical professionals, has hired an additional investigator to focus on high-dosage opioid prescriptions, said Francine Giani, department executive director. It is also upgrading its Controlled Substance Database with alerts to doctors and pharmacies “when a potential problem exists with a patient,” and a dashboard that allows doctors to compare their “prescribing behavior” to other health care providers, according to a news release by Cox.

The state also is distributing and training medics to use naloxone, a drug that quickly blocks the effects of opioids, said Ann Williamson, executive director of the state Department of Human Services.

Meanwhile, Williamson said, the number of DHS clients in addiction treatment went up by 31 percent last year.

"As a state, we’ve been actively involved in reducing the impact of opioid abuse," Williamson said.

Last year was the third year in a row that Utah saw a decline in the number of prescription opioid deaths, according to a news statement by Cox. But it was the first time in six years that the number of heroin deaths went down, he said.

However, statistics released Monday also showed that deaths believed to be opioid-related increased through each quarter of 2017, and the first quarter of 2018 saw more fatalities than any quarter the previous year.

Opioid overdoses were more prevalent among men than women in 2017, though women experienced more drug overdoses overall, according to the state’s data.