News Release 

Fentanyl tops list of drugs found in Baltimore overdose patients

University of Maryland researchers launch the Maryland Emergency Department Drug Surveillance (EDDS) System -- call for expanded fentanyl testing by hospitals

University of Maryland Medical Center

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IMAGE: Zachary D.W. Dezman, MD, emergency physician at the University of Maryland Medical Center Midtown Campus and lead author of a study that found fentanyl, linked to most fatal overdoses in... view more 

Credit: University of Maryland Medicine

BALTIMORE, MD (June 12, 2020) - A new University of Maryland study found fentanyl tops the list of drugs detected in overdose patients at two Baltimore hospital emergency departments. The finding suggests that hospitals and medical systems throughout the United States consider adding fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid linked to most fatal overdoses in Maryland, to their routine drug testing panels. That is the conclusion of researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) and the Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) at the University of Maryland, College Park. Currently, fentanyl is not routinely included in these panels nationwide. The study is based on de-identified urinalysis results and other data collected through the new Maryland Emergency Department Drug Surveillance (EDDS) system, launched to support improved patient outcomes.

UMSOM researchers collaborated with investigators at CESAR to analyze drugs identified in urine samples taken at both University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) Midtown and Downtown campuses from January 2016 through December 2019. Fentanyl testing was incorporated for all patients undergoing urine screens as a routine test at these hospitals in January 2019.

"The overdose cases we see in our emergency departments stem from a wide variety of substances that may not be known and present increasingly complex treatment challenges," said the study's lead author Zachary D.W. Dezman, MD, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, UMSOM. "In the case of fentanyl, without knowing its true role in these overdoses, public health officials and policy makers will find it difficult to implement the correct measures to improve patient care and help prevent substance abuse."

Fentanyl was the most prevalent drug identified in the study. It was detected in 73 to 87 percent of specimens that were tested for the substance in each of the four calendar quarters in 2019 when fentanyl testing was first implemented. Sixty-one percent of the fentanyl positive specimens contained other drugs in addition to fentanyl, while 13 percent contained fentanyl only. The researchers noted that these results are specific to these two Baltimore hospitals and that the rate of fentanyl positives could vary in other hospitals and states.

Results from the study appear in the current issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers turned to fentanyl testing after previous EDDS observations at four Baltimore hospitals showed that even in the midst of the opioid epidemic, fewer patients were testing positive for opiates. The opiate screen primarily detects morphine and codeine (most frequently indicating the presence of heroin) but does not detect fentanyl.

"The EDDS system represents an important partnership between University of Maryland researchers and hospitals," said Eric D. Wish, PhD, Director of CESAR and Director of the Maryland EDDS. "It can enable faster, more accurate identification of changing trends in substance use and, ultimately, aims to improve patient care."

Nationwide, hospital laboratory testing is routine for a number of substances including opiates, cocaine, and methadone, but not fentanyl, according to Dr. Dezman. "Fentanyl was rarely a cause of overdoses, so routine fentanyl testing was not typically performed. However, through our regular fentanyl testing and EDDS collaboration, we have addressed a gap in our patient care, allowing us to better inform our patients of the risks associated with continued use, assist with buprenorphine induction in the emergency department, and help us connect patients to substance use treatment programs," he said.

Dr. Dezman, together with CESAR, had previously conducted a small pilot study at UMMC Midtown Campus to test for fentanyl in a subset of 76 drug overdose specimens. The findings suggested that the opiate screen was, in fact, missing many of the patients who had tested positive for fentanyl. As a result, Dr. Dezman encouraged both UMMC Downtown and UMMC Midtown hospitals to initiate routine fentanyl screening for all ED patients who undergo urine testing, including psychiatric evaluations, emergency petitions, and labor and delivery patients. The MMWR article presents the first findings for fentanyl from the EDDS system for the four quarters of 2019.

"This study finding makes an important case for including fentanyl in routine drug overdose testing," said UMSOM Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, University Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor. "It highlights the important role and function of the newly created Maryland EDDS system, which helps to better guide patient treatment and more effective overdose prevention programs."

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Source: Dezman Z, Schwartz B, Billing A, Massey E, Artigiani E, Factor J, Wish E. "Notes from the Field: High prevalence of fentanyl detected by the Maryland Emergency Department Drug Surveillance System--Baltimore, Maryland, 2019." MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69(23); DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6923a3

About the University of Maryland School of Medicine

Now in its third century, the University of Maryland School of Medicine was chartered in 1807 as the first public medical school in the United States. It continues today as one of the fastest growing, top-tier biomedical research enterprises in the world -- with 45 academic departments, centers, institutes, and programs; and a faculty of more than 3,000 physicians, scientists, and allied health professionals, including members of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and a distinguished two-time winner of the Albert E. Lasker Award in Medical Research. With an operating budget of more than $1.2 billion, the School of Medicine works closely in partnership with the University of Maryland Medical Center and Medical System to provide research-intensive, academic and clinically based care for nearly 2 million patients each year. The School of Medicine has more than $540 million in extramural funding, with most of its academic departments highly ranked among all medical schools in the nation in research funding. As one of the seven professional schools that make up the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, the School of Medicine has a total population of nearly 9,000 faculty and staff, including 2,500 student trainees, residents, and fellows. The combined School of Medicine and Medical System ("University of Maryland Medicine") has an annual budget of nearly $6 billion and an economic impact more than $15 billion on the state and local community. The School of Medicine faculty, which ranks as the 8th highest among public medical schools in research productivity, is an innovator in translational medicine, with 600 active patents and 24 start-up companies. The School of Medicine works locally, nationally, and globally, with research and treatment facilities in 36 countries around the world. Visit medschool.umaryland.edu

About the University of Maryland Medical Center

The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) is comprised of two hospital campuses in Baltimore: the 800-bed flagship institution of the 14-hospital University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) -- and the 200-bed UMMC Midtown Campus, both academic medical centers training physicians and health professionals and pursuing research and innovation to improve health. UMMC's downtown campus is a national and regional referral center for trauma, cancer care, neurosciences, advanced cardiovascular care, women's and children's health, and has one of the largest solid organ transplant programs in the country. All physicians on staff at the downtown campus are clinical faculty physicians of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The UMMC Midtown Campus medical staff is predominately faculty physicians specializing in diabetes, chronic diseases, behavioral health, long term acute care and an array of outpatient primary care and specialty services. UMMC Midtown has been a teaching hospital for 140 years and is located one mile away from the downtown campus. For more information, visit http://www.umm.edu.

About the Center for Substance Abuse Research

The Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR), University of Maryland, College Park, is staffed by a diverse team of social scientists dedicated to making the link between academia and government, between research and practical applications, and between people and the services and information they need. CESAR's objective research, practical products, and innovative tools such as the MDCSL, CDEWS, NDEWS and now EDDS have successfully informed policy makers, practitioners, and the public about substance use--its nature and extent, prevention and treatment, and relation to other problems. The research and training CESAR offers helps define the future of drug research and has consistently guided the development and evaluation of effective drug prevention and treatment programs in Maryland and the United States. CESAR is part of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSOS) at the University of Maryland College Park. EDDS is supported by the MPowering the State Opioid Use Disorders Project, a collaboration between research scientists at the University of Maryland's Baltimore (UMB) and College Park (UMCP) campuses. For more information and to view current data from EDDS hospitals, visit: cesar.umd.edu.

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