Preliminary numbers from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) show a decline in drug overdose deaths between 2017 and 2018.
Drug overdose deaths in Minnesota decreased 17% between 2017 and 2018, from 733 deaths to 607 deaths, the data says.
Prescription opioid-involved deaths dropped 32%, from 195 in 2017 to 134 in 2018.
“While promising, overdose rates remain at historic highs,” says the MDH press release, “and indicate the amount of work still needed in prevention and treatment of substance use disorder.”
In the same time frame, medical organizations such as Twin Cities Orthopedics (TCO) and Mayo Clinic addressed how opiates are prescribed in Minnesota.
TCO began tracking patients’ prescription counts in spring 2017. What they found, said Chief Medical Officer Gary Wyard, were gaps between how much each doctor prescribed.
“Doctors of all stripes were prescribing with no real science behind it,” he said. “We did a study and found out that for about 13 different procedures, there was a great deal of variability. It went anywhere from four times what the other guy was doing, to 10 times what the other guy was doing. (...) We knew there was a problem because obviously that makes no sense.”
The study focused on the differences between doctors’ prescription amounts, but it also delved into the extent of overprescribing, and what patients did with leftover pain medications.
As part of the study, TCO called up patients who had been recently prescribed opiates. Patients frequently asked the callers: Why do you guys always prescribe so much?
Data from patient calls told TCO that over half of prescribed pills weren’t being used, and the study led to a revision of prescription protocols in February 2018.
In 2017 at TCO, an average of 41 pills were prescribed per patient. In 2018, that number became 16. Patients reported the change didn’t impact their pain levels.
Overall, the number of prescribed pills dropped 61% after the new guidelines came into place.
Among other efforts the MDH lists in its press release, the state has an Opioid Prescribing Work Group, which created opioid prescribing guidelines for Minnesota. Additionally, reports of opioid prescribing rates are being sent to more than 16,000 health care providers, so they can compare their rates with their peers.
“We know the (medical) community is getting on board and we’re all for that,” Wyard said. “It’s been a crisis, and we’re trying to do our part to solve it.”
Another state initiative includes increasing access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone (Narcan), notes the MDH press release.
Prescription opiates were one part to the preliminary findings. The numbers also show a drop in heroin deaths — from 111 in 2017 to 85 in 2018.
There were increases, such as a rise in deaths connected to synthetic opioids, especially those involving illicitly manufactured fentanyl.
“It’s encouraging to see this turn-around in the trend in 2018 as Minnesota has implemented a broad range of efforts to prevent opioid misuse and combat the overdose crisis,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm in the release. “This is good news, but we want to emphasize that this is still preliminary data and that overdose deaths continue to remain at historic highs. There is still much work that needs to be done to end this crisis and mitigate its effects.”
The press release says the final count of overdose deaths tend to be higher in the final report, which has an anticipated publishing time of fall 2019.