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U. expert publishes study focusing on opioid use disorder's effect on postpartum deaths

A University researcher found that diagnosed opioid disorder affects maternal mortality in a variety of ways. – Photo by @RobertAlai / Twitter

A recent study led by a Rutgers researcher examined the prevalence of postpartum deaths for public insurance users diagnosed with opioid use disorder. 

The study, using national Medicaid data, analyzed factors contributing to high rates of postpartum deaths, including substance use issues, accidents and suicide.

Elizabeth Suarez, an instructor at the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care and Aging Research and lead author of the study, said nationwide Medicaid data has been a useful reference for evidence in similar studies.

"Medicaid covers about 40 to 50 percent of pregnancies in the U.S., so you have a really big portion of the U.S. population," Suarez said. "Through their Medicaid data, we can see things like the prescriptions that they access at the pharmacy, (and) we can see all their health care visits that were reimbursed."

She said the study also used data from the national death index, which allowed the authors to cross-examine causes of death with Medicaid data about individuals' prescriptions and medical appointments.

Suarez said the study provides insight into what causes maternal mortality. In the postpartum stage, while mothers are at high risk of dying from opioid use disorder, they are more at risk of dying from accidents, other drug overdoses and suicide, she said.

But if mothers receive medications such as buprenorphine or methadone, their chance of death lowers, she said. In the past, physicians had to complete specific training so they could obtain a waiver from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in order to prescribe buprenorphine.

After the 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act was passed, physicians no longer had to undergo this training and could prescribe buprenorphine without the waiver, making the medication more accessible.

Outside of medication, Suarez said the study found that before some postpartum patients died, they went to multiple health care appointments.

In the future, these appointments could potentially serve as opportunities for health care workers to lessen the probability of death. Moreover, Suarez said that there has been progress regarding health care policies in addressing postpartum death.

"There are small (policy) changes happening like that — a lot of it is state-specific. New Jersey has had a strong focus on improving treatment for these patients and also improving maternal mortality in general," she said.

Suarez said the most important takeaway from the study is that people with opioid use disorder should know that treatments are available for those who are or may become pregnant.

"For the general public, it's good information to know that there are very effective treatments available and that they should encourage anyone they know that might have a problem with opioid use to seek out a physician and to seek out treatment," she said. "Because it is vitally important, especially during pregnancy and postpartum, that they are on treatment."

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