The statistics are staggering!
Between 1999 and 2010, almost 48,000 women died from overdosing on prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Opana, and methadone; an increase of more than 400%.
More than 6,600 deaths due to prescription painkiller overdoses were reported in 2010 alone. For every woman who dies – about 18 women a day – 30 more are going to the ER, that’s one every 3 minutes, due to painkiller misuse or abuse.
Why more women than men?
The rise in statistics stems from several reasons.
- Women are more likely to have chronic pain than men, thus are more likely to be prescribed prescription painkillers
- Painkillers are prescribed at higher doses for women than men (even though women feel the impact at a lower dose)
- Women tend to stay on the drugs longer than men
- Women may become dependent on prescription painkillers more quickly than men do
- Women are more inclined to use prescription drugs simultaneously with alcohol consumption
- Women may be more likely than men to engage in ‘doctor shopping’ (obtaining prescriptions from multiple doctors at the same time)
- The increase of doctor’s prescribing painkillers to women over the past decade
- The ease in obtaining prescription drugs from friends or relatives. 70% in fact
- A misunderstanding of the high risks and dangers involved with prescription drugs due to trust in the prescribing physician, not reading the fine print, or discussing the risks
According to the CDC, it will take a village of Federal and State government officials, health care providers, and women to remedy this epidemic.
The US government is already taking action by tracking prescription drug overdose trends, and educating health care providers and the public about prescription drug misuse among women, and the risks involved. They are developing and evaluating programs that prevent and treat prescription drug abuse and overdose, while making sure patients have access to safe, effective pain treatment. The Federal government is also working to improve access to mental health and substance abuse treatment through implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Healthcare providers are encouraged to recognize the epidemic of prescription drug overdose in women and look to other pain treatment options, including ones that do not involve prescription drugs. Be sure female patients understand the risks as well as the benefits of taking prescription painkillers; including painkillers for chronic conditions. They are encouraged to consider utilizing prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs)—electronic databases that track all controlled substance prescriptions in the state—to identify patients who may be improperly using prescription painkillers and other drugs. Lastly, it is recommended healthcare providers follow guidelines for prescribing painkillers responsibly.
On the State level steps can be taken to improve PDMPs, and identify improper prescribing of painkillers and other prescription drugs by using PDMPs and other data. Be pro-active by increasing access to substance abuse treatment, and considering what can be done to reduce barriers, such as lack of childcare, that women face in seeking substance abuse treatment.
Women are encouraged to disclose and discuss all medications they are taking (including over-the-counter) with their health care provider. Be sure to use prescription drugs only as directed by their doctor, and never share drugs or take medications prescribed to another person. As soon as the prescribed treatment is complete, dispose of any unused pills immediately.