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Ontario overhauling the way it collects data on opioid deaths, overdoses

A prescription pill bottle containing oxycodone and acetaminophen is shown in this June 20, 2012, photo.

Graeme Roy/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ontario is moving to overhaul the way it collects and analyzes data on opioid overdoses and deaths in an effort to get a better understanding of the extent of the problem in the province, officials said Tuesday.

"We are making significant efforts to completely turn our investigative process for opioid and other drug-related deaths on its head," said Chief Coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer.

Police forces and health units across the province have complained about the lack of timely data, and many are struggling to come up with their own methods to track the use of the deadly opioid fentanyl.

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The latest available data is for 2015, when 718 people died from opioid-related toxicity, according to the Office of the Chief Coroner.

"We are in the latter stages of developing a new investigative approach to these cases that will provide us with more timely data," said Huyer, adding his goal is to have those statistics made public within months, not years.

In British Columbia, which has been the epicentre of the opioid crisis, the Coroners Service releases monthly reports on opioid-related deaths.

Under the new system, Ontario's coroners will expand the amount of data they collect earlier in the process, said Huyer.

"The current investigative process doesn't allow identification of opioid-related deaths, or drug-related deaths, at the front end, in our way of managing the cases," he said. "Our whole process means we determine that it's an opioid-related death...many months after the death has actually occurred."

At the moment, the coroner's office has to search back through its files to create statistics on overdose deaths, but under the new system that information will be proactively collected and standardized so it can be analyzed more quickly and consistently, Huyer said.

That information, he said, will include the type of drug, whether it was prescribed or illicit, a detailed history of the person's health and if that person used opioids previously.

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"And by putting a priority on these cases, it will allow us to complete this work more quickly," Huyer said.

In general, coroners and pathologists determine someone has died from an overdose based on a number of factors, including the circumstances of their death, toxicology tests and an autopsy. That won't change, Huyer said.

As of April 1, all Ontario hospitals have begun reporting opioid overdoses on a weekly basis and that information, combined with more up-to-date data from the coroner's office, will support public policy decisions concerning drug use and overdoses, he said.

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