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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

IUPUI Researchers Found That Fear of Arrest Stops Opioid Overdose Calls to 911

People who administer the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone are choosing to not call 911 at the overdose scene for fear of being arrested, according to a survey conducted by Dr. Dennis Watson, an associate professor in the Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health – Indianapolis, and Dr. Bradley Ray, an assistant professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, both at IUPUI.

[Photo: Dr. Dennis Watson]

The survey is part of an evaluation the researchers have conducted of opioid policies that have been implemented in Indiana since 2013, and is funded by an $800,000 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant.

Dr. Watson and Dr. Ray’s team placed survey postcards with the naloxone kits that are handed out at local health departments. They received a total of 1,281 cards, including 1,197 that were filled out when the person picked up the kit, and 84 that were filled out after the kit was used.

The postcard survey initially targeted 20 counties in Indiana, but 16 counties were recently added to the survey. Among the questions asked on the postcards, which were mailed back to the researchers, is whether 911 was called after naloxone was administered.

Naloxone is a lifesaving emergency antidote for opioid overdose, yet approximately 27 percent of survey respondents said 911 was not called after naloxone was administered for an overdose.

Dr. Watson and Dr. Ray’s research shows that people don’t call 911 simply because they are afraid of being arrested.

“There is a possibility this fear may translate to death if the naloxone dose provided is not strong enough to completely counteract the opioids in the person’s system,” said the doctors.

Naloxone is not intended to replace emergency medical care. Persons who administer it are urged to call 911 for medical help because, “a person could look perfectly fine, get up and walk away, and then go into overdose again 30 minutes later,” Dr. Watson said.

Under Aaron’s Law, anyone may legally obtain naloxone — also known by the brand name Narcan — and administer it. Naloxone can be obtained through a standing order that allows pharmacies to dispense it to the public.

Part of the reason Aaron’s Law exists is to make sure people receive the care they need without fear of arrest. “This is a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem,” Dr. Ray said.

The number of deaths from drug overdoses continues to rise in Marion County. Last year, a record number of people — 345 — died from drug overdoses in the county. By comparison, on average, 85 people are killed per year in traffic accidents in Marion County.

As of May 1, there have been 130 drug-overdose deaths in Marion County in 2017, compared to 98 deaths that were recorded at the same time last year.

According to Dr. Watson and Dr. Ray, additional educational efforts are needed to inform the public about Aaron’s Law and naloxone. They suggested these efforts focus on the general public, but also be directed at professionals working in the Indianapolis area.