News & Commentary

Opioid Overdoses In Children Soar


The number of children ages 1 to 17 admitted to hospitals for an overdose of opioids nearly doubled from 797 patients between 2004 and 2007 and 1,504 between 2012 and 2015, according to a study in Pediatrics.

Researchers caution that the youngest children, those under six years old, are probably getting into the medicines by accident—what little kids have always done, in other words.

But there’s more to it than that. Twenty percent of children in this age group were admitted because they ingested methadone, which is prescribed to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms and as a painkiller. The medicine cabinet, never a safe place for curious children, has gotten that much more dangerous.

The oldest children in the study, those between 12 and 17, accounted for over 60% of patients admitted for opioid overdose.

Of the approximately 4.2 million patients admitted to 31 different children’s hospitals during the study period, 3,647 were admitted for opioid-related conditions. A total of 501,831 (12%) were admitted to pediatric intensive care units (PICUs). Of those, 1,564 were opioid-related admissions, the study states.

PICU admissions for opioid-related hospitalization rose from 24.9 to 35.9 per 10,000 admissions. The peak year of 2014 saw 36.6 per 10,000 PICU admissions.

The median cost of care decreased significantly during the study period, most likely because of shorter lengths of stay. The $6,253 cost of care in 2004–2007 decreased to $4,552 in 2012–2015.

However, because of the increases in all hospitalizations and those hospitalizations requiring critical care for opioid ingestion, the actual overall financial burden on the health system increased to $4,931, the study states.

This development could become an issue in the debate about the scope and shape of Medicaid, inasmuch as coverage for a majority of patients was provided by that entitlement program.

“The percentage of patients with opioid ingestion who have Medicaid as the primary payer source has increased over time,” the study states. Among patients younger than age 6, 66.5% were covered by Medicaid. “In the current health care climate, in which proposed changes to the funding of state-based Medicaid programs is under consideration,” the study’s authors wrote, “any reduction of Medicaid funding could have a profound impact on the ability to recuperate the cost of acute hospital care that is associated with pediatric opioid ingestions.”

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