HealthDay News — A new report estimates more than two-thirds of emergency department visits for overdoses of narcotic drugs involve prescription medications. The study was published online in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The researchers launched their research to better understand why people overdose on narcotics, a class of medications that includes illegal drugs like heroin along with prescription opioids (including methadone).

Study author Michael Yokell, a medical student at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, and his colleagues reached their conclusion by analyzing tens of thousands of reports of narcotic overdoses from a sample of nationwide emergency department visits from 2010.

Almost 68% of the overdoses involved prescription drugs. That number may be higher since the drugs were unspecified in 13% of cases, and multiple narcotics were involved in 3% of cases in the study. Heroin alone was responsible for 16% of the overdoses. Narcotic overdoses were most likely to happen in urban areas (84%) and the South (40% of the total). Most were in women; 1.4% of the total patients in the study died.

“Opioid overdose exacts a significant financial and health care utilization burden on the U.S. health care system. Most patients in our sample overdosed on prescription opioids, suggesting that further efforts to stem the prescription opioid overdose epidemic are urgently needed,” the researchers write.


Yokell, MA. JAMA Intern Med. 2014; doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.5413.