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Vital statistics data can help fill gap about prescription opioid-related deaths


A new study indicates that Statistics Canada data could be used to estimate the number of prescription opioid-related deaths in Canada to aid in national surveillance of this important public health issue by provincial and national public health agencies.

Public health officials in the United States track deaths from prescription drugs at the national level on a regular basis, allowing them to quickly identify and report on the rising trends of opioid overdoses across the country, said Tara Gomes, a researcher in the Li Ka Shing Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital and a scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES).

“In Canada, our knowledge of the prevalence of prescription opioid-related deaths is restricted to localized estimates obtained with varying methodologies,” she said in a paper published online today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “To help find solutions to this growing and complex public health crisis, accessible, nation-wide data sources to examine prescription opioid-related harms in Canada are desperately needed.”

Opioids are medications that relieve pain and include such drugs as oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, OxyNeo, Percocet), morphine (e.g., Kadian, MS Contin), hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Hydromorph Contin) and codeine.

Gomes and colleagues abstracted data from the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario to identify all deaths from prescription opioid overdoses from January 2003 to December 2010 in the province of Ontario. However, she noted the process of abstracting such data from coroners’ records is time- and resource intensive, and therefore not practical when attempting to identify deaths across Canada.

Statistics Canada’s Vital Statistics death database also captures causes of death in Canada. Since both databases are housed at ICES, the researchers were able to apply a series of algorithms to test the validity of the Statistics Canada definitions. In their paper published today in CMAJ, they report for the first time that the Statistics Canada data can be used to estimate rates of opioid-related deaths nation-wide with high specificity.

This study received funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and was supported by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network.

The Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) is an independent, non-profit organization that uses population-based health information to produce knowledge on a broad range of healthcare issues. Our unbiased evidence provides measures of health system performance, a clearer understanding of the shifting healthcare needs of Ontarians, and a stimulus for discussion of practical solutions to optimize scarce resources. ICES knowledge is highly regarded in Canada and abroad, and is widely used by government, hospitals, planners, and practitioners to make decisions about care delivery and to develop policy. For the latest ICES news, follow us on Twitter: @ICESOntario

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future healthcare professionals in more than 23 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, and care of the homeless are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Center, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

For more information, please contact:

  • Leslie Shepherd
  • Manager, Media Strategy
  • St. Michael’s Hospital
  • Phone: 416-864-6094 or 647-300-1753
  • [email protected]


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