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Original Investigation
June 24, 2019

Association of Opioid Overdose With Opioid Prescriptions to Family Members

Author Affiliations
  • 1Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
JAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(9):1186-1192. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.1064
Key Points

Question  Are opioid prescriptions to family members associated with overdose among individuals who themselves do not have an opioid prescription?

Findings  In this case-control study, prior opioid dispensing to family members was associated with 2.89-fold higher odds of individual overdose, which persisted in young children and increased with greater quantities of opioid medications dispensed to family members.

Meaning  Family member prescriptions may be a risk factor for overdose.


Importance  Prescription opioid misuse is a public health problem that leads to overdose. Although existing interventions focus on limiting prescribing to patients at high risk, individuals may still access prescription opioids dispensed to family members.

Objective  To determine whether opioid prescriptions to family members were associated with overdose for individuals who themselves did not have an opioid prescription.

Design, Setting, and Participants  We conducted a 1:4 matched case-control study using health care utilization data from 2004 through 2015 from a large US commercial insurance company. Eligible individuals were required to have at least 12 months of continuous enrollment and 1 or more family members in the database. Individuals who experienced overdose were identified by their first opioid overdose after the baseline period and matched to control participants by time in the database, calendar time, age, sex, and number of individuals in the family unit. Both groups were restricted to individuals with no prior opioid dispensing of their own. Data analysis was conducted from January 2018 to August 2018.

Exposures  Any prior opioid dispensing to a family member, total morphine milligram equivalents dispensed to family members, and the type of opioid product dispensed.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Individual odds of opioid overdose resulting in an emergency department visit or hospitalization were the primary end point. The primary analysis evaluated the odds of overdose among individuals whose family members had been dispensed an opioid. Sensitivity analyses examined the odds stratified by age and timing relative to the dispensing of opioids to family members.

Results  A total of 2303 individuals who experienced opioid overdose and 9212 matched control individuals were identified. The mean (SD) age was 23.2 (18.1) years; 1158 affected individuals and 4632 control individuals (50.3%) were female. The mean (SD) time in the database before an overdose case was 3.2 (3.3) years. Prior opioid dispensing to family members was associated with individual overdose (odds ratio [OR], 2.89 [95% CI, 2.59-3.23]). There was a significant dose-response association between increasing amounts of opioids dispensed to family members and odds of overdose (>0-<50 morphine milligram equivalents per day: OR, 2.71 [95% CI, 2.42-3.03]; 50-<90 morphine milligram equivalents per day: OR, 7.80 [95% CI, 3.63-16.78]; ≥90 morphine milligram equivalents per day: OR, 15.08 [95% CI, 8.66-26.27]).

Conclusions and Relevance  In this analysis, opioid prescriptions to family members were associated with overdose among individuals who do not receive opioid prescriptions. Interventions may focus on expanding access to opioid antagonists, locking prescription opioids in the home, and providing greater patient education to limit fatal overdose among family members.

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