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Opioid overdose is an important cause of postpartum death



Opioid overdose and other preventable causes are important contributors to postpartum death rates, Medicaid claims data show, particularly in women who have a recent history of opioid use disorder (OUD), according to research published in Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Opioid overdose deaths account for up to 10% of pregnancy-associated deaths in the United States, and 75% of the deliveries of women with OUD are covered by Medicaid, according to lead author Elizabeth Suarez, PhD, MPH, with the division of pharmacoepidemiology and pharmacoeconomics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, and colleagues.

Nearly 5 million deliveries studied

Researchers studied claims data from Medicaid and the National Death Index database in the United States from 2006 to 2013 for 4,972,061 deliveries. They also identified a subgroup of women with a documented history of OUD in the 3 months before delivery.

They found the incidence of postpartum opioid overdose deaths was 5.4 per 100,000 deliveries (95% confidence interval, 4.5-6.4) among all in the study and 118 per 100,000 (95% CI, 84-163) among individuals with OUD.

Incidence of all-cause postpartum death was six times higher in women with OUD than in all the women studied. Common causes of death of those with OUD were other drug- and alcohol-related deaths (47/100,000); suicide (26/100,000); and other injuries, including accidents and falls (33/100,000).

Risk factors strongly linked with postpartum opioid overdose death included mental health and other substance use disorders.

Medication significantly lowers death risk

The authors also documented the benefit of buprenorphine or methadone for OUD.

For women with OUD who used medication to treat OUD post partum, odds of opioid overdose death were 60% lower (odds ratio, 0.4; 95% CI 0.1-0.9).

As important as use of medication, Marcela Smid, MD, MS, writes in an accompanying editorial, is noting that 80% of the women in this study who died of opioid overdoses had contact with a health care provider before death.

“Both of these results indicate that we have the means and opportunity to prevent these deaths,” writes Dr. Smid, with the division of maternal fetal medicine, University of Utah Health in Salt Lake City.

Dismal numbers on ob.gyns. trained to prescribe medications

She points out some barriers, however. Most clinicians, she notes, lack time and training to prescribe buprenorphine, and in 2019, fewer than 2% of ob.gyns. who accept Medicaid were able to prescribe it.

Her charge to ob.gyns.: “We need to help identify individuals who are at high risk of OUD or opioid overdose by screening.” A validated screening tool should be used at prenatal and postpartum appointments.

On a bigger scale, she urges Medicaid to be expanded for a full year post partum through the American Rescue Act’s State Plan Amendment, something only 28 states and Washington, D.C., have done so far.

Dr. Smid points out some good news, however: President Joe Biden signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2023, which eliminated the “X” waiver.

Now all clinicians who have a Drug Enforcement Administration registration that includes Schedule III authority can prescribe buprenorphine for OUD if applicable state law allows it.

But that calls for medical schools and residency programs to prioritize addiction medicine as a core competency, Dr. Smid says.


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