By Pat Anson Editor
Opioid overdose deaths in intensive care units (ICUs) have risen sharply in recent years -- primarily due to heroin -- according to a large new study involving 162 U.S. hospitals in 44 states.
The research findings, published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, analyzed data from over four million ICU patients from 2009 to 2015. Of those, 21,705 were patients who overdosed on opioids, most commonly heroin. Deaths from overdoses averaged 7 percent during the study period, but rose to 10 percent by 2015.
“Although our data are not definitive, they suggest that overdoses from heroin, rather than prescription opioids, appear to be a major contributor to the rise in critical care mortality for this population,” wrote lead author, Jennifer Stevens, MD, an associate director of the medical intensive care unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“Not only did the number of opioid-related overdose patients requiring ICU care increase above and beyond the increasing supply of critical care admissions, the mortality among this population increased as well, leading us to estimate that there was a near doubling of ICU deaths.”
Researchers say ICU patients admitted for a heroin overdose were significantly more likely to die than those who overdosed on prescription opioids. Mortality was “not significantly associated” with overdoses linked to prescription painkillers.
The study also found that overdose patients admitted to ICUs required increasingly more sophisticated and costly intensive care, such as high-cost renal replacement therapy or dialysis. The cost of caring for these patients increased from $58,517 to $92,408 during the study period.
"This study tells us that the opioid epidemic has made people sicker and killed more people, in spite of all the care we can provide in the ICU, including mechanical ventilation, acute dialysis, life support and round-the-clock care," said Stevens.
Among the opioid overdose patients, 25 percent experienced aspiration pneumonia, 15 percent rhabdomyolosis (release of dead muscle fiber into the bloodstream), 8 percent anoxic brain injury and 6 percent experienced septic shock. Ten percent of the patients who overdosed needed mechanical ventilation. ICU’s in Massachusetts, Indiana and Pennsylvania had substantially higher overdose death rates.
A new study this week found the number of Americans who died from opioid overdoses – particularly from heroin – is significantly higher than previously reported. Researchers at the University of Virginia refined the overdose data from 2014 death certificates and estimated that overdose death rates nationally were 22 percent higher for heroin. Deaths involving heroin were substantially underreported in Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Alabama.
"The pace of the opioid epidemic continues to increase," said Stevens. "Those of us who work in hospital intensive care units need to make sure we have the tools we need to help patients with opioid use disorders when they are at their sickest, because there doesn't appear to be any end to this epidemic in sight."