Mortality among clients of a state-wide opioid pharmacotherapy program over 20 years: risk factors and lives saved

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2009 Nov 1;105(1-2):9-15. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2009.05.021. Epub 2009 Jul 15.


Background: The small size of previous studies of mortality in opioid dependent people has prevented an assessment of the extent to which elevated mortality risks are consistent across time, clinical and/or patient groups. The current study examines reductions in mortality related to treatment in an entire treatment population.

Methods: Data from the New South Wales (NSW) Pharmaceutical Drugs of Addiction System, recording every "authority to dispense" methadone or buprenorphine as opioid replacement therapy, 1985-2006, was linked with data from the National Deaths Index, a record of all deaths in Australia. Crude mortality rates and standardized mortality ratios were calculated according to age, sex, calendar year, period in- or out-of-treatment, medication type, previous treatment exposure and cause of death.

Results: Mortality among 42,676 people entering opioid pharmacotherapy was elevated compared to age and sex peers. Drug overdose and trauma were the major contributors. Mortality was higher out of treatment, particularly during the first weeks, and it was elevated during induction onto methadone but not buprenorphine. Mortality during these risky periods changed across time and treatment episodes. Overall, mortality was similarly reduced (compared to out-of-treatment) whether patients were receiving methadone or buprenorphine. It was estimated that the program produced a 29% reduction in mortality across the entire cohort.

Conclusions: Mortality among treatment-seeking opioid-dependent persons is dynamic across time, patient and treatment variables. The comparative reduction in mortality during buprenorphine induction may be offset by the increased risk of longer out-of-treatment time periods. Despite periods of elevated risk, this large-scale provision of pharmacotherapy is estimated to have resulted in significant reductions in mortality.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Buprenorphine / therapeutic use
  • Cause of Death
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Databases, Factual
  • Drug Overdose / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Methadone / therapeutic use
  • Middle Aged
  • Narcotic Antagonists / therapeutic use
  • Narcotics / therapeutic use
  • New South Wales / epidemiology
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / mortality*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / rehabilitation*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Young Adult


  • Narcotic Antagonists
  • Narcotics
  • Buprenorphine
  • Methadone