Pharmaceutical opioid overdose deaths and the presence of witnesses

Rowan P. Ogeil, Jeremy Dwyer, Lyndal Bugeja, Cherie Heilbronn, Dan I. Lubman, Belinda Lloyd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Background: In the past two decades, rates of pharmaceutical opioid use and harms resulting from their use (including death) have risen. The present study identified a series of fatal opioid overdoses where there was evidence that witnesses had noted symptoms consistent with overdose, and examined associated contextual factors. Methods: A retrospective review was undertaken utilising the Coroners Court of Victoria's Overdose Deaths Register for pharmaceutical opioid overdose deaths between 2011 and 2013. Information on the source of pharmaceutical opioids, co-contributing drugs, history of drug dependence, and mental illness was extracted and coded. Results: Pharmaceutical opioids were involved in 587 deaths, and within these, 125 cases (21%) were witnessed. The majority of these witnessed deaths (77.6%) occurred at the deceased's residence, with the witness being a partner or unrelated acquaintance who did not realise the significance of what they were witnessing. The most common contributing pharmaceutical opioids were methadone (49.6%), codeine (32.0%), and oxycodone (19.2%), with the source more often prescribed than diverted. Co-contributing drugs were involved in 110 cases, with the most common being benzodiazepines. Evidence of current dependence and mental illness was found in 53.6% of cases. Conclusion: Most pharmaceutical opioid overdose deaths with a witness present occurred in the deceased's home, with symptoms of overdose being noted, but not acted upon. These findings support the trialling of education and/or naloxone to partners and family members of people who use pharmaceutical opioids in order to reduce overdose deaths.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8-13
Number of pages6
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


  • Deaths
  • Drug overdose
  • Drug toxicity
  • Health education
  • Pharmaceutical opioids

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