Many people do rely on pharmacological treatment for withdrawal, anxiety or chronic pain, but when communities have access to an overabundance of these medications, abuse appears to become more likely. If doctors prescribe too much medication or too many refills, excess drugs "are going to be sitting in people's medicine cabinets for someone else to take advantage of," Baker explains. For example, methadone poisonings were four times as frequent in 2006 as they were in 1999, a time period during which retail sales grew more than 1,000 percent, Coben and his team found.
Although the new report details the stark increase in the reported poisoning data, the true number of deaths and hospitalizations in which prescription drugs have played a role might be even higher, the researchers pointed out. The new analysis assessed cases only in which prescription drug overdose was listed as the primary diagnosis. Some prescription drug–related hospitalizations might be classified under other primary categories, and those who abuse the drugs were not always labeled as having been poisoned. Additionally, the researchers explained, many common terms such as overdose, misuse and abuse are not well standardized in hospitals.
"I don't have any sense that it's getting any better," Coben says. With drug companies reporting strong overall sales (including a 5.1 percent increase in U.S. sales in 2009 to $300.3 billion for 3.9 billion individual retail prescriptions), in fact, the problem might be getting worse.
The researchers noted that the details surrounding these hundreds of thousands of overdoses are unknown. The medical data used for the analysis did not include full toxicology reports that would reveal drug-drug interactions. And although the researchers found that the majority of the people hospitalized for poisoning with these prescription drugs were women, they did not have enough other demographic data to propose possible reasons for the overdose increases.
"What we really need is something other than the coded data," Baker says. She notes that researchers need to know more about the circumstances in which people are overdosing before effective prevention measures can be put into place.
"There's a need to have informational interviews with people who have had overdoses and survived them," Coben says. He hopes that future research will "raise some opportunities for interventions with these people."