Nonfatal opioid overdose rates are climbing. Here's what you can do to help

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published October 7, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • The number of nonfatal opioid overdose EMS encounters per 10,000 total EMS encounters has progressively increased since 2018, according to the CDC.

  • With the exception of those aged 15–24, nonfatal opioid overdose became more prevalent among individuals of all ages and sexes over the past few years.

  • To help reduce nonfatal opioid overdose rates, doctors can responsibly prescribe opioids and use PDMPs.

Emerging research shows that nonfatal opioid overdose EMS encounters are on the rise, especially in urban counties and those with high unemployment rates.

Clinicians can address this issue by prescribing opioids responsibly and employing PDMPs.

EMS encounters rise

Despite a 44.4% decrease in opioid prescriptions in 2021, the opioid epidemic is ongoing, according to the AMA.[]

Patients who overdose are often first seen by EMS staff.

According to a 2022 CDC report, the rate of nonfatal opioid overdose EMS encounters has increased by about 4.0% each quarter from January 2018–March 2022, jumping from 98.1 to 179.1 per 10,000 EMS encounters.[]

The CDC report also pinpointed which communities are affected the most by nonfatal opioid overdose. According to the data, overdoses among people of all ages (with the exception of those between 15–24) have increased. The same is true for patients of all sexes.

Black individuals saw the highest increases in opioid overdose, followed by Hispanic or Latino persons. Non-Hispanic White (White) and non-Hispanic Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (NH/OPI) individuals experienced the highest overall rates of overdose.

Overdose rates increased in both rural and urban counties, with urban counties and those with high unemployment rates bearing the highest surges.

These data offer insight into which communities are disproportionately affected by opioid overdose, informing clinicians on how to provide equitable treatment and prevention tactics.

Who is at risk?

As overdose rates continue to climb, which patients are the most susceptible to opioid-related overdose?

According to an article published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the primary answer is those who are prescribed opioids to manage long-term chronic pain, as well as those who use heroin or misuse prescription pain medication.[]

Others who may be at high risk include patients who’ve been discharged from emergency care after experiencing an overdose, those subject to potential incomplete cross-tolerance as a result of a rotating opioid regimen, and patients with suspected substance use disorders who express the need for opioids.

Patients who endure opioid detoxification or complete a period of abstinence will have a diminished tolerance. They run a high risk of using again, which may result in overdose. The same is true of individuals with a history of opioid misuse who’ve been released from prison.

How you can help

When it comes to preventing opioid-related overdoses, there are a few actions you can take to do your part.

An article published by the AMA encourages physicians to handle opioid prescriptions as responsibly and thoughtfully as possible.[] This requires you to determine the most appropriate medication for the right indication at an opportune time to achieve a healthy balance.

The patient’s pain care team must stay aware of which medications most effectively treat different conditions, keeping in mind that opioids are most appropriate for patients experiencing acute pain, cancer pain, end-of-life pain, and, at times, chronic pain.

Keep your treatments patient-centered and be sure to run your patients through the benefits and risks of opioid use—as well as safe storage and disposal techniques.

Another article published by the CDC stated that clinicians can effectively monitor patients’ prescription drug use patterns by using prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs).[]

According to the CDC article, a PDMP is a “statewide electronic database that tracks all controlled substance prescriptions,” with which authorized users can access prescribed medications and doses, among other data.

PDMPs give doctors the opportunity to see if patients are obtaining opioids from several providers, as well as the total number of opioids a patient’s prescribed in a day. Doctors can also use PDMPs to identify patients who are taking medications that may increase their risk of misusing opioids, such as benzodiazepines.

If you implement PDMPs into your practice, the CDC recommends looking at a patient’s profile at least once every 3 months.

You may also check in just before prescribing opioids to make the most of the program.

What this means for you

Nonfatal overdose EMS encounters have increased among people of all sexes, ages above 24, races, and ethnicities, with the exception of NH/OPI. The same is true of individuals who live in urban counties and counties with higher unemployment prevalence. To help disrupt this trend, you can implement PDMPs to ensure that patients aren’t misusing prescribed opioids. Make sure they know the extent of the risks involved with opioid use.

Read Next: SCOTUS ruled on opioid prescriptions. Here’s what you need to know.
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