Opioid Epidemic Worsens, Drains Intensive Care Unit Resources

Nurse filling out chart in ICUOpioid-related deaths nearly doubled over a seven-year period, according to research published in the journal Annals of the American Thoracic Society. The epidemic of opioid-related hospitalizations has strained hospital resources, particularly in intensive care units (ICU), where opioid overdose survivors receive ongoing intensive care.

The study suggests the opioid abuse epidemic is ongoing and may be getting worse.

The Continuing Opioid Epidemic

The study is likely the first to look at the effects of opioid abuse on U.S. critical care resources. Researchers examined records on nearly 23 million adult hospital admissions between January 2009 and September 2015. The records spanned 162 hospitals and 44 states.

Of more than 4 million patients who required an ICU stay, 21,705 were admitted due to an opioid overdose. This marks a 34% increase in overdose-related admissions. Opioid-related deaths also nearly doubled.

Costs rose 58% during the study period. In 2009, the average opioid-related ICU stay cost $58,517. By 2015, the figure was $92,408. This price increase was partially driven by increasing patient needs. Over time, more patients admitted to the ICU needed dialysis, renal replacement, and other costly services.

The study’s authors caution that their research may not fully capture the scope of the opioid epidemic. They only included patients whose admission was coded as opioid-related, and not all admissions due to opioid overdose are coded as opioid-related.

What Is Driving the Opioid Epidemic?

Prescription opioids are a key factor in opioid abuse. Some patients with an opioid prescription may switch to heroin when they can no longer access prescription opioids. Others may overdose on prescription drugs.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urge doctors to limit their prescription of opioids only to patients who need them. The CDC also recommends careful monitoring of opioid recipients. Research suggests some doctors continue to ignore these guidelines. A 2016 study found 91% of opioid overdose survivors were prescribed more opioids. In 70% of cases, the prescription came from the same doctor who prescribed the drug on which the survivor overdosed.

Other research this year found a correlation between mental health diagnoses and opioid use. In that study, more than half of opioid prescriptions were prescribed to someone with a diagnosed mental health condition.


  1. Stevens, J. P., Wall, M. J., Novack, L., Marshall, J., Hsu, D. J., & Howell, M. D. (2017). The critical care crisis of opioid overdoses in the United States. Annals of the American Thoracic Society. doi:10.1513/annalsats.201701-022oc
  2. US opioid epidemic reaches new level of crisis in overdoses, hospitalizations and cost. (2017, August 28). Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-08/aabu-uoe082517.php

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  • douglas

    September 2nd, 2017 at 4:13 PM

    Haven’t I heard that there are more agencies now cracking down on the scripts that doctors can write and putting limits on how often patients can actually get those refilled?

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