Why the opioid epidemic has reached a 'new level of crisis'

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Researchers say that mortality rates and treatment costs have climbed drastically in recent years

For those who have their doubts about the U.S.’ supposed opioid epidemic, a recent study shows just how extensive the problem truly is.

Researchers from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center collected and analyzed data from hospitals across the nation and found a worrying trend. They say that from 2009 to 2015, there was a 34% increase in opioid-related overdose ICU admissions. At the same time, the cost of treating such incidents rose by 58% -- from $58,517 in 2009 to $92,408 in 2015.

Dr. Jennifer P. Stevens, lead author of the study, says that opioid-related medical problems are becoming worse with each passing year and are resulting in more deaths. Despite improved treatments, she says that this dangerous progression is not slowing.

"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," she said.

No end in sight

The researchers used a national hospital database to conduct their research, which included analysis of more than 23 million hospital admissions from 162 hospitals in 44 states. During the study’s seven-year period, Stevens and her colleagues found that over 4 million patients were admitted to ICUs due to opioid overdoses, nearly 22,000 of which required acute care.

The findings showed that opioid-related ICU admissions increased by more than half a percent each year, and that overdose admissions required increasingly intensive care as time went on. Mortality rates climbed at nearly the same rate over the seven-year period, with a greater rate of death being marked after 2012.

While the researchers admit that their findings were primarily drawn from urban academic medical centers, they say that the findings provide stark evidence of the need for better opioid prevention and treatment options.

"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."

The full study has been published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

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