What Your Death Certificate Says About You May Be Wrong: A Narrative Review on CDC’s Efforts to Quantify Prescription Opioid Overdose Deaths

What Your Death Certificate Says About You May Be Wrong: A Narrative Review on CDC’s Efforts to Quantify Prescription
Peppin J.F., Coleman J.J., Paladini A., Varrassi G.
Cureus 13(9): e18012. doi:10.7759/cureus.18012


Mortality data in most countries are reported using the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), managed by the WHO. In this paper, we show how the ICD is ill-suited for classifying drug-involved deaths, many of which involve polysubstance abuse and/or illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF).

Opioids identified in death certificates are categorized according to six ICD T-codes: opium (T40.0), heroin (T40.1), methadone (T40.3), other synthetic narcotics (T40.4), and other and unspecified narcotics (T40.6). Except for opium, heroin, and methadone, all other opioids except those that are unspecified are aggregated in two T-codes (T40.2 and T40.4), depending upon whether they are natural/semisynthetic or synthetic opioids other than methadone. The result is a system that obscures the actual cause of most drug overdose deaths and, instead, just tallies the number of times each drug is mentioned in an overdose situation.

We examined the CDC’s methodology for coding other controlled substances according to the ICD and found that, besides fentanyl, the ICD does not distinguish between other licit and illicitly manufactured controlled substances. Moreover, we discovered that the CDC codes all methadone-related deaths as resulting from the prescribed form of the drug. These and other anomalies in the CDC’s mortality reporting are discussed in this report.

We conclude that the CDC was at fault for failing to correct the miscoding of IMF. Finally, we briefly discuss some of the public policy consequences of this error, the misguided focus by public health and safety officials on pharmaceutical opioids, their prescribers and users, and the pressing necessity for the CDC to reassess how it measures and reports drug-involved mortality.

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