Opioid-Dependent Newborns Straining Rural Hospitals

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As the opioid epidemic sweeps through rural America, more drug-dependent newborns are straining hospital neonatal units and draining precious medical resources, reports the New York Times. The problem has grown more quickly than realized and shows no signs of abating. A study published yesterday in JAMA Pediatrics concludes for the first time that the increase in drug-dependent newborns has been disproportionately larger in rural areas. The rising rates are due largely to widening use of opioids among pregnant women, researchers found.

From 2004 to 2013, the proportion of newborns born dependent on drugs increased nearly sevenfold in hospitals in rural counties, to 7.5 per 1,000 from 1.2 per 1,000. The uptick among urban infants was nearly fourfold, to 4.8 per 1,000 from 1.4 per 1,000. “The problem is accelerating in rural areas to a greater degree than in urban areas,” said Dr. Veeral Tolia, a neonatologist at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. The hospital costs associated with treating addicted newborns rose to $1.5 billion in 2013, from $732 million in 2009, said a study in the Journal of Perinatology. Dr. Alison Holmes, an associate professor of pediatrics at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, said, “When you’re getting to a point of having a substantial proportion of mothers taking opioids and babies at risk for opioid withdrawal, it becomes a strain on the regional system.” A federal study using data from 2012 and 2013 found states like West Virginia, Maine, and Vermont had particularly high rates of what is known as neonatal abstinence syndrome.

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