Overdose Crisis Will Worsen, But Not Due to Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The opioid crisis will “substantially worsen” in coming years and could result in the overdose deaths of over a million Americans by 2025, according to an eye-opening new study. Because most of the deaths will involve illicit opioids, researchers say limiting the supply of prescription opioids will have only a “modest” effect in reversing the trend.      

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, is based on mathematical models developed by a team of researchers at Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Medicine, Pennsylvania State University and other academic institutions.

“Our study also highlights the changing nature of the epidemic. The opioid crisis is expected to worsen in the next decade owing to multiple factors,” said lead author Jagpreet Chhatwal, PhD, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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“First, the number of individuals using illicit opioids is expected to increase substantially. Second, unlike historical trends where prescription opioid use has served as a path to heroin use, more people are directly initiating opioid use with illicit opioids. Third, there has been a rapid increase in illicit opioid lethality, likely mainly driven by the infiltration of the heroin supply with the highly potent synthetic opioid fentanyl.”

Under a “base-case” scenario, with the opioid crisis stabilizing by 2020, researchers project that over 700,000 Americans will die from opioid overdoses from 2016 to 2025. Nearly 80 percent of the deaths will involve fentanyl, heroin and other illicit opioids. Overdoses involving prescription opioids would decrease by about 10% during that period.

JAMA NETWORK OPEN

JAMA NETWORK OPEN

A “pessimistic” scenario developed by researchers is even more jaw dropping. If the opioid crisis does not stabilize until 2025, they project over 1.2 million Americans will die from overdoses. Over 88% of the deaths will involve illicit opioids.

In either scenario, efforts to reduce the misuse of opioid medication, such as limiting the dose and supply of prescription opioids, will only reduce the number of overdose deaths by 3 to 5 percent.

“State and local governments have instituted several interventions aimed at preventing individuals from exposure to prescription opioids, including a recently proposed goal to lower opioid prescriptions by one-third in the coming 3 years,” said Chhatwal.

“Our study does not devalue these efforts and it is possible that their effect could improve over time, which may ultimately yield a substantial benefit in the long term. However, given the large number of individuals who have already engaged in prescription opioid misuse or illicit opioid use, our study indicates that prevention efforts, in isolation, are unlikely to have the desired level of effect on opioid overdose deaths the near term.”

The researchers say a strong, multi-pronged approach is needed to reduce overdoses, including greater scrutiny of patients for signs of opioid use disorder (OUD).

"It could include implementation of screening for OUD in all relevant health care settings, improving access to medications for OUD such as methadone and buprenorphine, increasing OUD training programs at medical and nursing schools, improving access to harm-reduction services, and controlling the supply of illicit opioids,” they concluded.

Another recent study also predicts that reducing the supply of prescription opioids will have little effect on the overdose rate and could lead to increased use of heroin.