Pharmaceutical opioid deaths in presence of witnesses

14 Feb 2018
by Turning Point staff

A new study supports the trialing of education and/or naloxone to partners and family members in order to reduce overdose deaths.


Rowan Ogeil, Jeremy Dwyer, Lyndal Bugeja, Cherie Heilbronn, Dan Lubman and Belinda Lloyd.


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In the past two decades, rates of pharmaceutical opioid use and harms resulting from their use (including death) have risen. The present study identified a series of fatal opioid overdoses where there was evidence that witnesses had noted symptoms consistent with overdose, and examined associated contextual factors


A retrospective review was undertaken utilising the Coroners Court of Victoria’s Overdose Deaths Register for pharmaceutical opioid overdose deaths between 2011 and 2013. Information on the source of pharmaceutical opioids, co-contributing drugs, history of drug dependence, and mental illness was extracted and coded.


Pharmaceutical opioids were involved in 587 deaths, and within these, 125 cases (21%) were witnessed. The majority of these witnessed deaths (77.6%) occurred at the deceased’s residence, with the witness being a partner or unrelated acquaintance who did not realise the significance of what they were witnessing. The most common contributing pharmaceutical opioids were methadone (49.6%), codeine (32.0%), and oxycodone (19.2%), with the source more often prescribed than diverted. Co-contributing drugs were involved in 110 cases, with the most common being benzodiazepines. Evidence of current dependence and mental illness was found in 53.6% of cases.


Most pharmaceutical opioid overdose deaths with a witness present occurred in the deceased’s home, with symptoms of overdose being noted, but not acted upon. These findings support the trialling of education and/or naloxone to reduce overdose deaths.