High-Risk Counties For Opioid Deaths Identified By New Study

By Kelly Burch 07/02/19

For a new study, researchers examined the most high-risk places for opioid overdose and overdose deaths.

person pointing at map of high-risk counties for opioid deaths

As many as 13% of counties in the U.S. are classified as high risk for people with opioid use disorder, because they have high overdose rates and few treatment options, according to a new study that looked at overdose data from around the country. 

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, aimed to understand overdoes rates by county in order to better distribute resources for recovery efforts. 

"We hope policymakers can use this information to funnel additional money and resources to specific counties within their states," said lead author Rebecca Haffajee, assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. 

Nearly 25% Of Counties Had A High-Rate Of Overdose Deaths 

Around 24% of counties (751) had a high rate of overdose deaths. Researchers found that 46% of counties did not have a provider who prescribed medication-assisted treatment, while 71% of rural counties did not have a publicly available provider of opioid treatment. 

"We need more strategies to augment and increase the primary care provider workforce in those high-risk counties, people who are willing and able to provide opioid use disorder treatments,” Haffajee said. 

In addition to increasing the number of care providers, the researchers pointed out that better job opportunities were linked to lower overdose rates. Counties with more employment, more providers and younger residents had a lower risk of overdose deaths. 

The balance between overdose rates and available providers played out differently in rural versus urban counties, Haffajee pointed out. 

"In rural areas, the opioid crisis is often still a prescription opioid issue. But in metropolitan counties, highly potent illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are more prevalent and are killing people," she said. "That's likely why we identified metropolitan areas as higher-risk, despite the fact that these counties typically have some (just not enough) treatment providers.”

Access To Medication-Assisted Treatment Is The Key

Information like that can help governments to more efficiently distribute money and resources. 

“Understanding these differences at the sub-state level and coming up with strategies that target specific county needs can allow us to more efficiently channel the limited amount of resources we have to combat this crisis.” 

The researchers wrote, “Although overall buprenorphine-waivered clinicians and funds for [opioid use disorder] treatment to states have increased in recent years, to have the largest effect on the opioid crisis these resources need to be funneled to local county areas with the greatest unmet need, together with new models of care to reach people with [opioid use disorder].”

For example, “prioritizing fund allocation and clinician workforce augmentation efforts around [medication-assisted treatment] in nonmicropolitan counties, including in many Appalachian and Mountain regions, could be particularly effective in reducing opioid-related risks,” they wrote. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.