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Pain, money woes among factors in Utah drug ODs

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Department of Health just completed a year-long study on drug overdose deaths. Researchers interviewed close family members and friends of overdose victims, and they ended up with some surprising findings. Most of the people who died were taking at least one prescription drug.

The goal of this study was to figure out what factors may predispose someone using a prescription drug to have a fatal overdose.

Highlights of report
Financial Problems:
  • 63% of decedents were unemployed during the last two months of life.
  • 59% of respondents reported that the decedent had a financial problem during the two months prior to death.
  • 27% of individuals were uninsured at the time of death. This is higher than the statewide rate of uninsured of 14% in 2008.
Past History of Substance Abuse:
  • When asked if the decedent experienced a substance abuse problem during the two months prior to death, 40% responded ‘yes'.
  • Specific drugs that the decedent had ever used during their lifetime included high rates of marijuana (48) cocaine (25), methamphetamine (23) and heroin (17).
Mental Stability:
  • 49% reported to have been diagnosed with a mental illness by a health care provider.
  • 24% of decedents had been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons.

In one year, 432 people in Utah died from a drug overdose.

Derek Barnes died in June at the age of 21. His mother, Gayle Barnes, said, "He was always full of energy. He was rambunctious. He lived life to the edge, always."

When he was in the 7th grade his friend shared his mother's prescription for Lortab. Barnes soon developed an addiction he and his family would fight for the rest of his life.

Oxycodone was the drug most frequently mentioned as a contributing cause of death, followed by methadone, hydrocodone and alprazolam.

"He knew they were ruining his life, but he couldn't explain it to me," Gayle Barnes said. "He wanted to get better, but he couldn't leave them alone."

Researcher Erin Johnson and her team conducted in-depth interviews with the Barnes family and family members of 385 victims -- 240 of whom died from prescription drug abuse -- most of them involving narcotic painkillers.

"It's devastating." Johnson said, "These deaths didn't have to happen."

Seventy-eight percent of the victims were between the age of 25 and 54, and there was a pretty even split between males and females. Most of the victims began taking the drugs to control pain and received at least one prescription from a doctor.

Johnson explained, "It doesn't mean the provider was wrong in prescribing it. It just means that's a place to start with an intervention."

The study did illuminate three characteristics that appear to be strongly linked to overdose deaths: financial problems, past history of mental illness and substance abuse.

"So 40 percent of people who died from opioids had a substance abuse problem two months prior to death," Johnson said.

But while this study began to reveal some common traits among victims, there is no clear profile. "Whenever we try and narrow it down, we end up missing people," Johnson explained.

"Drugs do not discriminate," Barnes said. "They are going to touch all of us somehow, and it's going to be good people, people we love. My son was a good boy."

One of the recommendations that came out of this study was for doctors to screen patients for some of those risky characteristics before giving them a prescription for pain medication.

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Candice Madsen


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