The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at records from about 11,500 people, 2,303 of whom had experienced an opioid overdose that required a hospital visit. The researchers found that people whose family member had been prescribed opioids in the past were more likely to overdose.
“Family member prescriptions may be a risk factor for overdose,” the study authors wrote.
The authors said that the data proves that more needs to be done to reduce access to opioids among family members of people who are given 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,” they wrote.
Although some people argue that the opioid crisis is caused by underlying factors like low social mobility, studies like this prove that access to opioids plays a significant role, said Stanford drug policy expert Keith Humphreys.
“The claim that opioid overdose is just about ‘root causes’ rather than drug supply cannot be sustained in light of these findings,” he wrote on Twitter.
The research showed that the more opioids a person was prescribed, the higher the risk that one of their family members would overdose. The study only looked at overdose victims who had not previously been prescribed opioids themselves, solidifying the link between family member use and likelihood of overdose.
This isn’t the first time that research has shown a link between access to opioids and abuse. Another study published this year found that when teens were prescribed opioids for the first time, 2.4% developed long-term use. However, that rose to 4.1% for teens who had a family member that used opioids chronically.
“The findings suggest that long-term opioid use among family members is associated with persistent opioid use among opioid-naive adolescents and young adults undergoing surgery and should be screened for in the preoperative period,” study authors wrote.
In addition, a report found that doctors and nurses were responsible for 67% of prescription drug thefts. The vast majority of those involved opioids. Tennessee doctor Stephen Loyd said that easy access to opioids and lack of accountability made it easy for him to divert pills.
“There was no requirements on what happened to those pills. They could go down the toilet or they could go in my pocket,” he said, adding that he’s not surprised there is so much opioid diversion among doctors. “They’ve got high stress jobs. A lot of them, like myself, have workaholism. And not only that, you have access.”