Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 522–529

Unintentional Prescription Opioid-Related Overdose Deaths: Description of Decedents by Next of Kin or Best Contact, Utah, 2008–2009


  • Erin M. Johnson
    • Utah Department of Health, Prescription Pain Medication Program
  • William A. Lanier
    • Epidemic Intelligence Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    • Department of Health ScienceBrigham Young University
  • Jacob Crook
    • Utah Department of Health, Communicable Disease Epidemiology Program
  • Christina A. Porucznik
    • Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, Division of Public HealthUniversity of Utah School of Medicine
  • Robert T. Rolfs
    • Utah Department of Health, Prescription Pain Medication Program
  • Brian Sauer
    • IDEAS Center, George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center
Original Research

DOI: 10.1007/s11606-012-2225-z

Cite this article as:
Johnson, E.M., Lanier, W.A., Merrill, R.M. et al. J GEN INTERN MED (2013) 28: 522. doi:10.1007/s11606-012-2225-z



Little is known about the characteristics that may predispose an individual to being at risk for fatal overdose from prescription opioids.


To identify characteristics related to unintentional prescription opioid overdose deaths in Utah.


Interviews were conducted (October 2008–October 2009) with a relative or friend most knowledgeable about the decedent’s life.


Analyses involved 254 decedents aged 18 or older, where cause of death included overdose on at least one prescription opioid.


Decedents were more likely to be middle-aged, Caucasian, non-Hispanic/Latino, less educated, not married, or reside in rural areas than the general adult population in Utah. In the year prior to death, 87.4 % were prescribed prescription pain medication. Reported potential misuse prescription pain medication in the year prior to their death was high (e.g., taken more often than prescribed [52.9 %], obtained from more than one doctor during the previous year [31.6 %], and used for reasons other than treating pain [29.8 %, almost half of which “to get high”]). Compared with the general population, decedents were more likely to experience financial problems, unemployment, physical disability, mental illness (primarily depression), and to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and use illicit drugs. The primary source of prescription pain medication was from a healthcare provider (91.8 %), but other sources (not mutually exclusive) included: for free from a friend or relative (24 %); from someone without their knowledge (18.2 %); purchase from a friend, relative, or acquaintance (16.4 %); and purchase from a dealer (not a pharmacy) (11.6 %).


The large majority of decedents were prescribed opioids for management of chronic pain and many exhibited behaviors indicative of prescribed medication misuse. Financial problems, unemployment, physical disability, depression, and substance use (including illegal drugs) were also common.


chronic painillicit drug usemental illnessopioidsoverdoseoverprescribedprescription pain medication

Supplementary material

11606_2012_2225_MOESM1_ESM.docx (40 kb)
Online Appendix(DOCX 40 kb)

Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2012