FAIRBANKS — An overwhelming number of Alaska opiate overdose hospitalizations are from suicide attempts, a finding that surprised the state researcher who put together the report.
Overdoses from opiate prescription pain pills like oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine are a growing national health issue nationally and disproportionately in Alaska, according to health program manager Deborah Hull-Jilly with the state section of epidemiology. In 2008 in particular, prescription drug overdoses, particularly opioid overdoses, occurred in Alaska at twice the national rate, according to a December bulletin from the State of Alaska Section of Epidemiology.
These numbers led Hull-Jilly to study two statistics related to opioid overdoses: the state’s data from the National Poison Data System and the Alaska Trauma Registry, which tracks hospitalizations. Among 1,422 prescription opioid toxicity cases reported to Poison Data System between 2001 and 2010, about 50 percent were cases of intentional exposure to the drug, according to the study. Overdoses that led to hospitalizations were even more indicative of self harm. Among 283 hospitalization cases in the same time period, 82 percent were recorded as suicide attempts.
“That surprised me, although I guess it shouldn’t have,” Hull-Jilly said.
The report broke down the demographics of the hospitalizations. Sixty-five percent were female and hydrocodone was the most frequently overdosed drug. Some 54 percent were in the Anchorage/Mat-Su area, while 14 percent were in the Interior. Forty percent spent time at a hospital intensive care unit and the median patient racked up a $5,965 hospital bill.
The bulletin provides several ideas for improving the state’s prescription overdose problem. One main approach, especially for unintentional overdoses, is more education about securing and disposing of prescription pain pills.
“You should think about how are you storing and maintaining your medications,” Hull-Jilly said.
Another recommendation is improving communication between patients and doctors who prescribe opiates, such as encouraging them to create written pain management agreements.
Such contracts are supposed to limit “fishing,” the practice of visiting multiple doctors or emergency rooms to obtain drugs, she said.