Development of Syndrome Definitions for Acute Unintentional Drug and Heroin Overdose


  • Em Stephens Virginia Department of Health, Richmond, VA, USA



ObjectiveTo develop and evaluate syndrome definitions for the identificationof acute unintentional drug overdose events including opioid, heroin,and unspecified substances among emergency department (ED) visitsin Virginia.IntroductionNationally, deaths due to opioid overdose have continuallyincreased for the past 15 years1. Deaths specifically related to heroinincreased more than four-fold between 2002 and 20142. Hospitalinpatient discharge data provide information on non-fatal overdoses,but include a significant lag in reporting time3. Syndromic ED visitdata provide near real-time identification of public health issues andcan be leveraged to inform public health actions on the emergingthreat of drug overdose.MethodsVirginia Department of Health (VDH) developed two syndromedefinitions in 2014 to capture acute unintentional drug overdoseevents among syndromic ED visit data. Syndrome 1 captured visitsfor overdose, whether or not a specific substance was mentioned.Syndrome 2 captured only visits for heroin overdose. Definitionswere based on free-text terms found within the chief complaintand standardized text or International Classification of Diseases(ICD) codes within the diagnosis field. In 2016, both definitionswere revised to identify additional inclusion and exclusion criteriaaccording to CDC guidance documentation and syndrome definitionsused by other state jurisdictions.Microsoft SQL was used to modify both definitions based on thenewly identified chief complaint and diagnosis criteria. Record leveldata were analyzed for their adherence to established criteria using aniterative evaluation process.The scope of Syndrome 1 (2016) was narrowed from the 2014version by excluding visits for non-opioid substances, heroin, andnon-acute indicators. It included chief complaint and diagnosisterms related to opioids, unspecified substance overdose, narcotics,and Narcan or naloxone, and excluded terms related to suicide,alcohol overdose alone, withdrawal, detoxification, rehab, addiction,constipation, chronic pain, and any specified non-opioid drug ormedication. Syndrome 2 (2016) included chief complaint or diagnosisterms mentioning heroin overdose and excluded suicide, withdrawal,detoxification, rehab, and addiction. Visits with mention of suicide,rehab, or addiction were identified during the evaluation process,resulting in the exclusion of these terms in the revised query.From January 1, 2015 to July 31, 2016, the number of visitscaptured by the revised syndrome definitions was compared to thenumber captured by the 2014 definitions. Correlation coefficientswere calculated using SAS 9.3.ResultsThe revised Syndrome 1 found 4296 fewer ED visits(29% decrease) for acute unintentional drug overdose betweenJanuary 1, 2015 and July 31, 2016 compared to the 2014 definition.Despite the drop in volume, the monthly trends were similar forthe 2014 and 2016 definitions (correlation coefficient = 0.95,p < 0.001). For the same time period, the revised Syndrome 2 definitionreturned 108 fewer visits (6% decrease) for acute unintentional heroinoverdose. The monthly trends were also similar for the 2014 and 2016definitions (correlation coefficient = 0.98, p < 0.001).ConclusionsBoth revised syndrome definitions improved specificity incapturing overdose visits as Syndrome 1 (2016) identified 29% fewervisits and Syndrome 2 (2016) identified 6% fewer visits found to beunrelated to the desired overdose criteria.When developing the revised syndrome definitions, VDH decidedto exclude non-acute drug-related visits. Terms such as addiction,detoxification, rehab, withdrawal, chronic pain, and constipation wereindicative of habitual drug use or abuse instead of acute overdose andwere thus excluded. In narrowing the scope of Syndrome 1, VDHalso identified and excluded visits for specified drug and medicationoverdose. Together, these expanded exclusion criteria resulted ingreater specificity with both updated syndromes.These revised syndrome definitions enable VDH to better trackopioid and heroin overdose trends in near real-time and overextended time periods which can be used to inform public healthactions. Limitations include the inconsistency of diagnosis codingamong syndromic data submitters, which may lead to geographicunderrepresentation of unintentional drug overdose visits based onthe location of health care systems. VDH will continue to evaluate andrefine these overdose syndrome definitions as this emerging healthissue evolves.




How to Cite

Stephens, E. (2017). Development of Syndrome Definitions for Acute Unintentional Drug and Heroin Overdose. Online Journal of Public Health Informatics, 9(1).



Novel algorithms, statistical or mathematical methods