SALT LAKE CITY -- Financial problems, a history of substance abuse and mental illness are factors strongly connected to prescription drug overdose deaths in Utah.
According to a study released Monday by the Utah Department of Health, the new figures could benefit doctors when screening patients to identify who is more at risk of suffering a fatal unintentional overdose.
"We found out there was a high proportion of people who were unemployed or had financial problems," said Dr. Robert Rolfs, director of the Utah Division of Disease Control and Prevention. "Lack of health insurance was one characteristic that we hadn't known before. It's also common to have some kind of history of substance abuse."
UDOH officials are trying to understand why prescription drug overdose deaths have jumped more than 500 percent over the last decade or so. Utah residents are now more likely to die from a drug overdose than in a traffic accident.
"Very little is known about why we are experiencing this epidemic of prescription drug deaths in Utah," said Dr. David Sundwall, director of the health department. "The ultimate goal is to prevent as many of these deaths as we can."
Officials concluded the study in February after examining Utah drug overdose deaths for ages 12 and older that occurred over one year starting in late October 2008. The study documented which drugs were used and factored in the victim's sex, religion, financial standing and histories regarding substance abuse and mental illness.
Researchers interviewed either a relative or friend with the most knowledge about the victim in 90 percent of the 432 documented Utah overdose cases. Of those cases, 278 involved at least one opioid, a legal painkiller, with 240 of those an opioid with no illicit drugs.
Of those 240, 83 percent said their loved ones suffered from chronic or ongoing pain. Oxycodone was the most frequently used non-illicit drug contributing to an overdose death, followed by methadone, hydrocodone and alprazolam. The 38 other cases involved an opioid with at least one illicit drug.
Rolfs said many cases are characterized either as a patient safety problem, in which a patient overdosed by taking the medicine wrong or was prescribed incorrectly, or they used the prescriptions recreationally and may have had an addiction. He said many who died from overdose fell into a category in the middle of the two.
"Maybe a person started out with pain and got hooked," he said. "What this tells me is, that middle group is a much bigger group than I would have thought."
The study reported that Weber County saw 83 overdose deaths during that time frame. Davis County had 43 and Box Elder reported an unspecified figure.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.