Drug-Related Emergency Room Visits Are on the Rise

Drug-related emergency room visits in the United States have increased, largely due to prescription painkillers, according to a new study.

Roughly 700,000 Americans were taken to the hospital in 2007 after ingesting drugs (both legal and illegal), costing $1.4 billion per year in emergency department charges alone, according to researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. This translates to roughly 1,900 patient visits and $3.8 million in charges per day.

Poisoning by antidepressants and tranquilizers, as well as pain- and fever-control medicines, were responsible for almost half of the emergency department visits for drug-related poisoning examined in the study.

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In some states, drug poisonings have surpassed motor vehicle fatalities as the leading cause of death by injury.

"I never thought in my career that I would see anything that surpassed deaths from motor vehicle accidents," said Dr. Gary Smith, the senior author of the study and director for the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital. "This is a public health emergency."

Over 27,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2007, a number that has risen five-fold since 1990 and has never been higher, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Prescription drugs are now involved in more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.

While drug abuse used to be considered a largely urban problem, the Ohio study found that the rate of emergency department visits for drug-related poisoning is now three times higher in rural areas than in non-rural areas. In addition, children five years and younger had a higher rate of emergency room visits for unintentional drug-related poisonings than all other age groups.