Lack of Available Treatment Leads to Fatal Heroin Overdose

By ThinkReliability Staff

The death of a young man in New Jersey on September 23, 2010 from a heroin overdose was tragic, but part of a trend becoming more and more common.  His death mirrors many of the other fatal heroin overdoses and by examining the issues that led to this fatality, solutions that could reduce the death rates from heroin overdoses across the country (and perhaps beyond) can be developed.

We will examine this particular case in depth by using a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis. First we capture the particulars of the issue – what, when and where – as well as the impact to the goals.  The fatality is an impact to the patient safety goal, while insufficient help being available is captured as an important difference, and is also an impact to the patient services goal.

Beginning with an impacted goal (in this case, the patient safety goal), we ask why questions to determine the cause-and-effect relationships that led to the impact.  In this case, the death resulted from a heroin overdose.  Overdoses typically result from use of this specific drug, with which overdoses are not uncommon.  Though it is not clear if this played a role in this particular death, heroin overdoses can occur after a user attempts to get clean and relapses.  If the user goes back to the dose from before ending use of the drug, the body (if it has been drug free for some period of time) is unable to handle it, resulting in the overdose.

In order to overdose, heroin use has to begin.  The use of heroin is rapidly increasing, with an estimated 669,000 users by 2012.  First-time users increased from 90,000 in 2006 to 156,000 in 2012.  The reason for the increase is believed to be the comparatively inexpensive cost compared to prescription opiates.  While a gram of heroin might sell for $100, crackdowns against prescription drug “pill mills” have increased the cost of prescription opiates (like OxyContin) to $1,000 a gram.

Once heroin use has begun, quitting is extremely difficult.  While withdrawal symptoms are not life-threatening, they are extremely unpleasant (to use a massive understatement).  Because they are not life-threatening, emergency care is limited (the victim in this case was unable to be admitted to the hospital) and many insurance companies won’t cover treatment, which can be extremely expensive.  In 2012, only 2.5 million of the 23.1 million Americans who needed drug or alcohol treatment received aid at a special facility.

Hope for overdose victims is available in the form of naloxone.  Since 2001, the use of naloxone by emergency responders resulted in reversal of over 10,000 overdoses.  The Affordable Care Act should improve insurance coverage for treatment, though it may take years for this to be in effect and, with the treatment availability shortage, likely means that not everyone will get the help they need.

However, solutions that address the problem of heroin use itself are being developed.  According to Attorney General Eric Holder, “Confronting this crisis will require a combination of enforcement and treatment.  The Justice Department is committed to both.   Since 2011, the DEA has opened more than 4,500 investigations related to heroin.  And as a result of these aggressive enforcement efforts, the amount of heroin seized along America’s southwest border increased by more than 320 percent between 2008 and 2013.   Of course, enforcement alone won’t solve the problem.  That’s why we are enlisting a variety of partners – including doctors, educators, community leaders, and police officials – to increase our support for education, prevention, and treatment.”  With the help of the federal and local governments, as well as dedicated families of users, it is hoped that the tide of heroin use will be turned.  This will be the most effective way to stop overdose deaths.

To view the Outline and Cause Map, please click “Download PDF” above.  Or click here to read more.