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Opioid treatment infrequently started after suspected overdose visit to ED

Opioid treatment after a suspected overdose at ED provides an opportunity to reduce subsequent harm but appears to be infrequently initiated

The initiation of opioid treatment in patients who present at emergency departments (EDs) with a suspected opioid overdose provides an ideal opportunity to reduce subsequent harm but appears to be infrequently initiated. This was the finding of a 21-month study at EDs by a team from the Department of Pediatrics, Child Health Evaluation and Research Center, University of Michigan, US.

In a study of over 17,000 patients treated for a suspected opioid overdose at EDs, the one-year mortality rate has been found to be around 5.5% with 20.5% of these deaths occurring within a month of discharge. Moreover, evidence suggests that naloxone programs can reduce subsequent opioid overdose death rates and the need to introduce such programs has become much more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the observed increased rate of ED visits for opioid overdoses.

For the present study, researchers undertook a retrospective study and turned to an all-payer database which provided data on pharmacy and medical claims, to assess the rates of naloxone and buprenorphine prescribing within 30 days of an ED visit for a suspected opioid overdose between August 2019 and April 2021. In terms of prescribed items, the researchers focused on those formulations of buprenorphine approved for opioid use disorder.


During the period of the study, there were 68,072,261 ED visits, of which 148,966 (0.2%) were for opioid overdose. Among these visits, 53,073 (35.6%) were for women and 42.1% of patients were aged 18 to 34 years. For the 148,966 ED opioid-overdose visits, 7.4% (95% CI 7.3% – 7.5%) of individuals were prescribed at least 1 naloxone prescription within 30 days of their ED visit and 6.3% (95% CI 6.2% – 6.4%) had at least one naloxone prescription dispensed.

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For buprenorphine, 8.5% (95% CI 8.3% – 8.6%) of patients were issued with at least 1 buprenorphine prescriptions within 30 days of their ED visit and 8.2% (95% CI 8.0% – 8.3%) at a buprenorphine prescription dispensed within 30 days of their visit.

Commenting on their results, the authors calculated that after an ED visit for a suspected overdose, opioid treatment with naloxone or buprenorphine was initiated in only 1 in 13 and 1 in 12 respectively for all ED visits. They suggested that clinicians were therefore missing an ideal opportunity to prevent subsequent opioid overdose-related mortality, although they recognised that the onus to prescribe was not the sole responsibility of ED clinicians but that this could happen within the outpatient setting.

In their conclusion, they suggested that future studies should focus on interventions to overcome and minimise the barriers to prescribing opioid treatment to reduce this potential missed opportunity.


Chua KP et al. Naloxone and Buprenorphine Prescribing Following US Emergency Department Visits for Suspected Opioid Overdose: August 2019 to April 2021 Ann Emerg Med 2021