The effect of incomplete death certificates on estimates of unintentional opioid-related overdose deaths in the united states, 1999-2015

Jeanine M. Buchanich*, Lauren C. Balmert, Karl E. Williams, Donald S. Burke

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


Objectives: A complete and accurate count of the number of opioid-related overdose deaths is essential to properly allocate resources. We determined the rate of unintentional overdose deaths (non–opioid-related, opioid-related, or unspecified) in the United States and by state from 1999 to 2015 and the possible effects of underreporting on national estimates of opioid abuse. Methods: We abstracted unintentional drug overdose deaths (International Classification of Diseases, 10th Revision, codes X40-X44) with contributory drug-specific T codes (T36.0-T50.9) from the Mortality Multiple Cause Micro-Data Files. We assumed that the proportion of unspecified overdose deaths that might be attributed to opioids would be the same as the proportion of opioid-related overdose deaths among all overdose deaths and calculated the number of deaths that could be reallocated as opioid-related for each state and year. We then added these reallocated deaths to the reported deaths to determine their potential effect on total opioid-related deaths. Results: From 1999 to 2015, a total of 438 607 people died from unintentional drug overdoses. Opioid-related overdose deaths rose 401% (from 5868 to 29 383), non–opioid-related overdose deaths rose 150% (from 3005 to 7505), and unspecified overdose deaths rose 220% (from 2255 to 29 383). In 5 states (Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania), more than 35% of unintentional overdose deaths were coded as unspecified. Our reallocation resulted in classifying more than 70 000 unspecified overdose deaths as potential additional opioid-related overdose deaths. Conclusions: States may be greatly underestimating the effect of opioid-related overdose deaths because of incomplete cause-of-death reporting, indicating that the current opioid overdose epidemic may be worse than it appears.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)423-431
Number of pages9
JournalPublic health reports
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2018


  • Death
  • Death certificates
  • Drug overdose
  • Epidemics
  • Opioids

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


Dive into the research topics of 'The effect of incomplete death certificates on estimates of unintentional opioid-related overdose deaths in the united states, 1999-2015'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this