Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 522–529 | Cite as

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

  • Erin M. Johnson
  • William A. Lanier
  • Ray M. MerrillEmail author
  • Jacob Crook
  • Christina A. Porucznik
  • Robert T. Rolfs
  • Brian Sauer
Original Research



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 pain illicit drug use mental illness opioids overdose overprescribed prescription pain medication 



This study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Utah Department of Health. The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We express our appreciation to the next of kin of best contacts that consented to be interviewed after the death of a relative or friend as a result of a drug overdose.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they do not have a conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

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


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Erin M. Johnson
    • 1
  • William A. Lanier
    • 2
  • Ray M. Merrill
    • 3
    Email author
  • Jacob Crook
    • 4
  • Christina A. Porucznik
    • 5
  • Robert T. Rolfs
    • 1
  • Brian Sauer
    • 6
  1. 1.Utah Department of Health, Prescription Pain Medication ProgramSalt Lake CityUSA
  2. 2.Epidemic Intelligence Service, Centers for Disease Control and PreventionAtlantaUSA
  3. 3.Department of Health ScienceBrigham Young UniversityProvoUSA
  4. 4.Utah Department of Health, Communicable Disease Epidemiology ProgramSalt Lake CityUSA
  5. 5.Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, Division of Public HealthUniversity of Utah School of MedicineSalt Lake CityUSA
  6. 6.IDEAS Center, George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical CenterSalt Lake CityUSA

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