Opioid Addiction Rates Higher Than Expected In Massachusetts, Study Says

By Paul Gaita 10/29/18

Nearly 5% of Massachusetts residents may be battling opioid use disorder, according to a new study. 

hand drawing a rising arrow

Health officials in Massachusetts are expressing concern over the results of a new study, which suggests that more residents are struggling with opioid use disorder than previous research had suggested.

Using information culled from a database for public health information, the study authors found that the number of individuals in the Bay State who have either received treatment for addiction, or who qualify as addicted but have gone undiagnosed, may be as high as 4.6% of residents over the age of 11.

That number is significantly higher than previous records, which suggested that addiction rates hovered at just over 1%.

The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health, and sought to determine the annual prevalence of opioid use between 2011 and 2015.

To do so, researchers used the Massachusetts Public Health Data Warehouse, which links information on hospital and emergency room visits, prescriptions and insurance claims, among other sources, from more than a dozen state agencies.

Patients are identified with their own unique number so it is possible to track a single individual who may have been admitted to a hospital or ER or received treatment from first responders.

Researchers looked at information on individuals who, based on such encounters with the health care system, had been or could be determined as suffering from opioid addiction—and identified 119,000 people, or 2% of the state population over the age of 11 in 2015.

From there, they used statistical methods to estimate the number of people who would be considered as opioid-dependent but have not received any treatment. 

That formula brought the total number of individuals up to 4.6%, or 275,000 Massachusetts residents over the age of 11 years. Previous research, which determined the 1% rate, was based on national surveys that interviewed only those people who had sought help from the health care system for opioid-related issues.

Response from the Massachusetts medical community was largely positive in regard to the study's findings. The Boston Globe quoted Dr. Joshua A. Barocas, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, who said, "[The study] is a good wake-up call. Our pool of people who are at risk for overdoses is potentially higher than we thought it was." 

The study also drew criticism from Dr. Silvia S. Martins, director of the Substance Abuse Epidemiology Unit at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Her response stemmed from what she viewed as a broad definition of opioid use disorder, which may have inflated the statistics.

"The analysis could have been done in a more precise way," she said.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.