Prevalence of fentanyl exposure and knowledge regarding the risk of its use among emergency department patients with active opioid use history at an urban medical center in Baltimore, Maryland

Background: Overdose deaths from fentanyl and its analogs have increased significantly since 2013. There are limited data regarding the prevalence of fentanyl exposure among emergency department (ED) patients with active opioid use.

Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional study at an urban hospital from May 20 to July 30, 2018. A convenience sample of adult ED patients with active opioid use, defined as opioid use within seven days prior to ED visit, were enrolled. Rapid Response® Single Drug Test Strip (BTNX Inc., Markham, Canada) was used to detect fentanyl in urine samples. Information on demographic, substance use history, and knowledge of fentanyl was obtained using a brief survey tool. Our primary outcome was the prevalence of fentanyl exposure; secondary outcomes included patients’ knowledge regarding potency, risk of overdose death from fentanyl and intentional purchase of fentanyl.

Results: During our study period, 451 patients reported active substance use. Of these, 208 reported active opioid use and 165 consented for the study. The median age was 49 years [interquartile range: 38, 57] and 77.0% (n = 127) were male; 42 participants (25.5%) presented to ED after an acute overdose event. Heroin was the preferred opioid of use in 90.8% of the participants, primarily via intranasal route (64.6%). Polysubstance use was reported in 98.8%, most commonly with cocaine (57.6%; n = 95). Fentanyl was detected in 104 out of 129 urine samples tested (80.6%). 84.2% (n = 139) identified fentanyl as highly potent and 85.5% (n = 141) recognized highest risk of death in fentanyl overdose. A larger proportion of non-overdose participants intentionally purchased fentanyl (34.1%; n = 42) compared to the overdose group (16.7%, n = 7; p = .04).

Conclusions: The majority of ED patient with active opiate use were exposed to fentanyl while one in three participants intentionally purchased fentanyl despite their awareness of its potency and the high-risk of death from overdose.