Opioid Deaths may be Much Higher than Previously Thought

Opioid Deaths may be Much Higher Than Previously Thought

Opioids have already created the deadliest and most alarming drug overdose epidemic in U.S. history, but now it turns out that the actual number of opioid deaths is thousands more than previously estimated.

new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that opioid deaths in 2014 were actually 24 percent higher than previously reported. Heroin deaths alone were 22 percent higher than estimated, which means that the total number of all opioid overdose deaths for that year was actually more than 35,000 instead of the nearly 29,000 initially reported.

Even more concerning is how much the the mortality rankings changed by state. In fact, Alabama, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Mississippi, the updated rates for opioid overdose deaths were more than 100 percent higher than each state had predicted. Other states, such as South Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, Connecticut, Florida, and Kentucky drastically overestimated opiod overdose death rates.

Ruhm noted that opioid overdose fatalities increased by 137 percent from 2000 to 2014. The study he conducted involved analyzing the existing count of drug poisoning deaths to determine in what circumstances opioids were not marked correctly as the cause of death.

Ruhm created several maps to illustrate how much underreporting is taking place is some states. On the left, are maps representing the originally reported 2014 death rates for all opioids, as well as just heroin deaths. The map on the right shows the corrected opioid overdose death rates.

Opioid Overdose Rates
American Journal of Preventative Medicine

Ruhm analyzed overdose death numbers from the CDC Multiple Cause of Death (MCOD) files from 2008 and 2014. He found that hospitals often do not specify which drugs are in the person’s body at the time of death. He estimated that about a fifth to a quarter of these death certificates do not list any drugs at all.

These corrected numbers can have a significant impact on access to treatment and policy reform. Lawmakers in states like Pennsylvania, for example, will become more aware of the seriousness if the opioid crisis and be able to shift their focus to finding better healthcare solutions for treating people with opioid addiction.

Ruhm made several importan key notes in his conclusion, stating,

Additional training and standardization in states with low specification rates may be helpful for obtaining accurate information on drug involvement in fatal overdoses, particularly because this is a bigger problem when death certificates are completed by coroners rather than medical examiners and in states without centralized oversight.

Until such information becomes available, correction methods like those developed here are needed to provide more accurate estimates of drug involvement in fatal overdoses occurring at a point in time. Moreover, even with improvements in reporting, these or similar procedures will be necessary for investigating mortality trends, because greater specificity on death certificates in later (but not earlier) years introduces additional errors into the estimates of changes over time.

Understanding the inaccuracies resulting from the lack of specificity of drug involvement on death certificates is particularly important because federal policies often target states believed to have especially severe opioid or heroin problems. More fundamentally, geographic disparities in drug poisoning deaths are substantial and a correct assessment of them is almost certainly a prerequisite for designing policies to address the fatal drug epidemic.

Get Help for Opioid Addiction

If you or someone you love is addicted to opioids, it’s imperative to find professional help. At Get Treatment, we can help you find a certified drug rehab centers that provides individualized care and support for recovery. Dial 855-638-9268 today to learn more about the opioid addiction treatment programs available to you.

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Erica Loret de Mola


Erica Loret de Mola is a communications major who has been writing about addiction treatment for approximately three years. As content manager and editor in chief of Get Treatment, she strives to provide the most accurate and current information available to our clients.


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