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(Salt Lake City, UT) -  Between October 2008 and October 2009, hundreds of Utahns relived the personal stories of friends and family members who died from a fatal drug overdose to researchers from Utah Department of Health (UDOH).  Data from the Office of the Medical Examiner show that of the 432 Utahns who died from a drug-related death during the timeframe of the study period, more than half of the deaths (240) involved prescription opioids (such as oxycodone or hydrocodone) and no illicit drugs (such as heroin or cocaine).  The researchers set out to determine what, if any, characteristics could potentially predispose someone using a prescription pain medication to suffer a fatal overdose.  

Researchers have since compiled the data into a full report, and on Saturday night the UDOH and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell hosted a dinner to thank the family members who participated in the study and share the results with them.

"It's no secret that we are experiencing an epidemic of prescription drug-related overdose deaths in Utah," said Lt. Gov. Greg Bell.  "What has eluded us, though, is information on what is leading to these deaths.  Hopefully the insight we have gained from those who have been personally affected by a fatal overdose will prevent others from suffering a similar fate."

Findings from the research show three characteristics that appear to be strongly correlated with deaths that involved prescription opioids with no illicit drugs: Financial struggles, a past history of substance abuse and mental illness.

  • 63 percent were unemployed during the final two months of life
  • 40 percent experienced a substance abuse problem during the two months prior to death
  • Respondents mentioned high rates of marijuana (48 percent), cocaine (25 percent), methamphetamine (23 percent) and heroin (17 percent) use
  • 49 percent had been diagnosed with a mental illness by a healthcare provider

Other key findings from the interviews include:
  • 92 percent of decedents suffered from chronic or ongoing pain
  • 50 percent used tobacco daily during the last two months of life
  • 87 percent had used alcohol
  • 66 percent were overweight or obese
  • 28 percent had no healthcare coverage at the time of death
  • 74 percent had used medications to help them sleep
  • 76 percent of those interviewed said they were concerned with the decedent's use of medications

Of these deaths, oxycodone was the drug most frequently mentioned as a contributing cause of death, followed by methadone, hydrocodone, and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam.  Males accounted for 51 percent of the victims, and 78 percent of the victims were between the ages of 25 and 54.

"This research is a starting point for us, we need to continue to study what role, if any, these characteristics truly play in predisposing a person to an overdose death," said UDOH Executive Director Dr. David Sundwall.  "We can then make the appropriate recommendations to doctors and patients to adjust their clinical treatment accordingly."     

Authors of the report also believe many deaths could be avoided if medications were taken specifically as prescribed by a doctor.

The full report is available online at <a href="http://www.health.utah.gov/prescription">www.health.utah.gov/prescription</a>.  For more information, resources and statistics on prescription pain medications, visit www.UseOnlyAsDirected.org.