Rates of Repeated Overdose Linked to Opioid Prescribing After Non-Fatal Overdoses

Deaths due to prescription opioids quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, but little is known about prescribing patterns surrounding an overdose. Researchers examined insurance claims and found 91% of patients were dispensed opioids after a nonfatal overdose. Several factors were identified as risk indicators for a repeat overdose; however, buprenorphine dispensing was not associated with increased risk for repeat overdose.


Until recently, prescribing opioids for non cancer-related chronic pain had increased dramatically. In parallel, opioid misuse and rates of overdose have increased in recent decades. Presentation to an emergency department (ED) or hospital with a nonfatal overdose is an opportunity to identify and refer patients who may be misusing opioids, however, patterns of treatment, including rates of continued prescribing are unknown.

This study aims to describe prescribing patterns following a nonfatal overdose, and determine its relationship to a second overdose. Ultimately, this study may help to prevent overdoses if we better understand more about how prescribing patterns may be related to overdose risk.


This study analyzed insurance records from a U.S. health insurer during the years 2000-2012. Starting with a pool of 50 million commercially insured patients, Larochelle and colleagues identified a cohort of 2,848 adults who had a nonfatal opioid overdose during long-term opioid therapy. In order to determine the daily opioid dosage surrounding the time of overdose, patient’s records were examined 90 days before and up to 2 years after the overdose. Daily opioid dosage was divided into: none, low (< 50 mg of morphine-equivalent dispensing [MED]), moderate (50 to < 100 mg MED), and high (≥100 mg MED).


Secondary outcomes that were examined after the overdose included:


  1. risk for a subsequent overdose
  2. how many patients switched providers.


Additionally, in order to better describe the sample, they determined how many patients had insurance claims with a diagnosis of substance use disorder, mental health disorder, or dispensing of a benzodiazepine.


60 days before the overdose, the mean daily dosage ranged between 152 mg (e.g., moderate dose) and 164 mg (e.g., high dose) of morphine-equivalent dispensing (MED) until the week before the overdose, mean dosage increased, peaking 187 mg MED on the day before the overdose.

30 days after the overdose, the mean dosage had decreased to 118 mg MED (e.g., high dose) and remained relatively stable for the 2 year follow-up.

A repeat overdose occurred with 7% (n = 212) of patients by the two-year follow-up, however, 72% of the sample was censored (e.g., missing) at the two year follow-up due to health plan disenrollment or becoming 65 years of age (Medicaid eligible).


Several factors were associated with risk for a repeat overdose including:


  1. higher levels of dosage (≥ 100 mg morphine-equivalent dispensing (MED))
  2. active dispensing of benzodiazepine (which occurred for 58% of patients).


Many patients switched providers after the overdose. From the subset of 1,964 patients for whom the researchers were able to identify the primary prescriber before and after the overdose, 30% switched to new prescriber.

Background information on the patients showed that 59% had a mental health diagnosis & 41% had claims with a substance use disorder.

Active dispensing of buprenorphine (7% of patients) was not associated with a higher risk of repeat overdose.


Opioid prescribing is common after a nonfatal overdose (91% of patients received opioid dispensing). Furthermore, a considerable number of patients (between 31% and 36%) may receive high doses (≥100 mg morphine-equivalent dispensing (MED)) within 30 days following an overdose.

Patients who receive high (e.g., large) doses are at the greatest risk for repeat overdose.


Patients who have a low dose (< 50 mg of MED) are at no greater risk of repeat overdose than patients who have no prescription. Importantly, buprenorphine dispensing was not associated with increased risk for a repeat overdose.

Patients who receive high doses could be targeted to receive regular counseling on safe medication management, particularly if they are receiving benzodiazepines.

  1. This study is limited to use of opioids as defined by insurance claims (e.g., using insurance to pay for an opioid prescription). The extent of misclassification of opioid dosage because of patients who paid cash as opposed to using insurance is unknown.
  2. Additionally, this study is limited to overdose treatment in the emergency department or inpatients settings. Overdoses that were treated in out-of-hospital settings are not reflected in this report (e.g., walk-in clinics).
  3. Last, this analysis included commercially insured patients which limits generalizability to patients in other settings, such as the Medicaid and Veterans Affairs systems, where risk of overdose is known to be higher (Center for Disease Control, 2009).


Future research should disentangle how many of patients who receive a high dose of morphine-equivalent dispensing (MED) (≥100 mg) also have a substance use disorder. This study showed that patients with high daily opioid doses are at the greatest risk for a repeated overdose, it is not reported how many of the high daily opioid patients were diagnosed with a substance use disorder. This subgroup analysis may have been outside the scope of the original paper.

Additionally, research is needed to determine whether providers continuing to prescribe opioids after an overdose are aware of the event and, if so, how they respond in counseling patients.


  • For individuals & families seeking recovery: If you or a family member who has a prescription for opioids, and has experienced a nonfatal overdose, it is common to continue receiving prescription opioids. If you or your family member is currently taking a higher dose (≥100 mg morphine-equivalent dispensing (MED) per day), the risk for a second overdose is twice as likely compared to lower doses. However, if you are receiving prescription buprenorphine, it may not increase your risk for a repeat overdose.
  • For Scientists: According to prescribing guidelines that were released at the start of this study (Manchikanti et al., 2012), opioid misuse and its adverse effects are compelling reasons to discontinue opioids. Future research could shed light on if prescribing guidelines have helped to reduce the likelihood of a second overdose.
  • For Policy makers: Currently, almost all states are using the prescription-monitoring program (PMP) which provides dispensing information for controlled substances to providers. The PMP can be expanded to include information about patient overdoses. As such, the PMP can help facilitate communication between providers regarding nonfatal overdoses for the patients they are treating.
  • For Treatment professionals and treatment systems: Often there is no formalized system to send a provider notification after a nonfatal overdose. Ultimately, the responsibility of tracking nonfatal overdoses among your patients falls on you. Treatment systems can facilitate the provider notification of a nonfatal overdose by creating a centralized electronic medical record that would allow doctors within the same treatment system to review patient records before prescribing an opioid.


Larochelle, M. R., Liebschutz, J. M., Zhang, F., Rosss-Degnan, D. (2015). Opioid prescribing after nonfatal overdose and association with repeated overdose. A cohort study. Annals of Internal Medicine, 164, 1-9.