Author: Justin Mckibben
It hasn’t even been one week since I wrote about the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting opioid overdoses increased by 30% in only one year, and already a new story from The Washington Post suggests that these numbers are actually being highly undercounted! So in reality, the increase could be skewed by the fact that the real rates of overdose deaths are tragically misrepresented.
This new study reveals that the government has actually been undercounting opioid overdose deaths by anywhere between 20% and 35%!
So how is this happening? How much worse is the overdose outbreak?
A Closer Look at Coroner Reports
The reason the study says this underreporting is happening is due to how the current numbers are actually determined. In order to estimate national trends in opioid overdose and opioid-related death, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention amasses data from over 3,000 coroner’s offices across the US.
However, the issue is that coroners function independently, so their available resources vary from case to case. The same goes for their reporting practices.
Christopher Ruhm, a professor at the University of Virginia, took a closer look at tracking trends and found that a lot of coroners do not specify the drug when documenting a fatal overdose. Ruhma states that from 1999-2015, of all fatal overdoses 23.1% did not have a drug specified on the death certificate.
The CDC cannot control local coroners, so it is the states and counties responsibility to improve their overdose reporting practices. If we want a more accurate reading of how opioids are harming a community, there has to be efficient documentation.
Unfortunately, the political incentives are not very supportive of accurate reporting. Officials may be concerned that by spending money on better overdose recording, they will have paid for the chance to look like their opioid problem is actually getting worse. The incentive just isn’t there from a political stance. However, that isn’t a good enough reason to botch the records. Communities still deserve to have a comprehensive idea of the issues they are facing.
Tracking Overdose Death Trends
The inference of coroners not including the drug in the report is that there are a lot more overdoses that do not get included in the official figures released at the federal level. There could be thousands of more deaths from opioids that go unaccounted for. To take a shot at tracking trends, Ruhm studied the records of coroners who did record specific drugs for overdose deaths. Based on this tracking, he was able to attribute a “corrected count” of opioid overdoses. In his report, Ruhm states:
“Corrected rates were obtained by using information from death certificate reports where at least one drug category was specified to impute involvement for cases where none was specified.”
There are many elements to how Ruhm came up with her corrections, and I encourage everyone to read the full analysis, which is published by the Society for the Study of Addiction (SSA). The report makes some pretty intense claims about what overdose deaths opioids should account for. For example in 1999 the CDC figures show:
- 8,050 overall opioid deaths
- 2,675 synthetic opioid deaths
Yet, Ruhm’s corrected count shows 1999 saw:
- 10,232 overall opioid deaths
- 3,421 synthetic opioid deaths
In 2015, the CDC figures say:
- 33,091 overall opioid deaths
- 19,884 synthetic opioid deaths
But Ruhms count pushes that up to:
- 39,999 overall opioid deaths
- 23,857 synthetic opioid deaths
Finally, when we look at the 2016 CDC figure, it said 42,249 opioid overdose deaths nationwide. But the corrected count figure puts 2016 at 49,562 opioid overdose deaths nationwide
What we can take away from Ruhm’s research is simply that the severity of the opioid crisis is being underestimated. From 1999-2015, Ruhm’s corrected counts for overdose deaths were 21% to 35% higher for all opioids. With corrected counts involving heroin and synthetic opioids were 20% to 30% higher.
So when we look at these stats, even if we leave some room for calculation errors, it is still a troubling thought. Since 2009, the leading cause of injury-related death in America has been drug overdoses. For years now, opioids have been public enemy number one concerning drug policy. Everything from prescription painkillers to synthetics being shipped halfway across the world has contributed to this crisis. If all we know about the true devastation of this epidemic is merely our best guess that still doesn’t take it all in, now is truly the time to urge officials and community leaders to take significant steps toward real, lifesaving solutions.