Overdoses of prescription drugs account for more emergency room visits than any other cause in Los Angeles County, the county’s top public health official said in a report released Monday.
The number of people checking into publicly funded drug rehabilitation programs for abuse of prescription pain relievers doubled during a five-year-period examined by epidemiologists, and more than 60 percent of drug-related deaths in the county last year were due to prescription medications.
More: See the actual report
The study of prescription drug abuse in LA County comes amid increasing concerns across the nation about deaths and addiction related to pain killers and other doctor-approved medications.
“Patterns observed on a national scale have been observed within Los Angeles County and indicate that the burden on health is increasing,” public health director Dr. Jonathan Fielding said in the report.
Of 8,265 drug-related deaths in the county between 2000 and 2009, about 61 percent involved prescription or over-the-counter medications.
In response to epidemiologists’ questions, 5.2 percent of the residents admitted to misusing prescription drugs in the past year, indicating such abuse by about 379,000 people, the report said.
Among teens, 11 percent of 9th graders and 14 percent of 11th graders said they had misused prescription drugs at least once. Among teens and young adults who attend continuation schools, community day schools and alternative high schools, fully 37 percent said they had misused prescription drugs at least once, the report said.
Altogether, 14 million prescriptions for narcotic or “opioid” pain killers were written over the past five years in Los Angeles County. These drugs include, among others, Codeine, Oxycodone, Morphine, Percocet and Fentanyl.
Key to addressing the problem, Fielding said, would be a robust public awareness program.
In the report, he recommended school-based information about prescription painkillers and other drugs as a bigger part of substance abuse education in schools.
He also recommended educational efforts for families, including prescription drug “take-back” events, at which people would be able to turn in extra prescription drugs.
He also recommended more structured and evidence-based pain management programs for people who undergo surgery or are injured and require pain medications.