Painkiller Overdose Deaths Up Sharply in Washington

King County has a prescription pain medicine problem. That much we know from a study conducted by the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. Last year, the Institute reported that 60 percent of the drug-related deaths in King County in 2008 involved prescription painkillers like Oxycodone. But a just-released report by State Department of Health indicates that the problem is statewide.

The DOH now says that since 2003, the number of Washingtonians that have died by overdosing on prescription pain medicine has jumped 90 percent. According to the study, 505 Washington residents died from prescription drug-related overdoses in 2008. That's up from the previous year's total of 447.

As it turns out, the numbers in surrounding counties are even more grim. Snohomish, Stevens and Spokane counties all have a higher rate of death-by-pain-med overdose than King County. Spokesperson for the state Department of Health, Jennifer Sabel, tells Seattle Weekly that the increase is indicative of the larger problems affecting health care.

Health care providers are prescribing these more powerful pain relievers at higher rates, she says. But there's an inherent danger. Doctors aren't given a lot of time to consult with patients, says Sabel. As a result, she says they may working with an incomplete account of what other medications the patient might be taking, or how those meds will interact with an opiate-based painkiller like Oxycontin.

Hoping to deal with the problem, the state Department of Health has created a brochure guide for physicians on how to help keep their patients from accidentally overdosing. But it doesn't address the other reasons that has kept the state's prescription painkiller overdose rate higher than the national average: combination with alcohol and drug abuse.

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