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BACKGROUND: Drug overdose is a leading cause of mortality and morbidity amongst people who inject drugs (PWID). Drug overdose surveillance typically relies on the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) coding system, however its real world utilisation and the implications for surveillance have not been well characterised. This study examines the patterns of ICD-10 coding pertaining to drug overdoses within emergency departments for a cohort of known PWID. METHODS: Cohort data from 688 PWID was linked to statewide emergency department administrative data between January 2008 and June 2013. ICD-10 diagnostic codes pertaining to poisonings by drugs, medicaments and biological substances (T-codes T36-T50) as well as mental and behavioural disorders due to psychoactive substance use (F-codes F10-F19) were examined. RESULTS: There were 449 unique ED presentations with T or F code mentions contributed by 168 individuals. Nearly half of the T and F codes used were non-specific and did not identify either a drug class (n = 160, 36%) or clinical reaction (n = 46, 10%) and 8% represented withdrawal states. T and F codes could therefore be used to reasonably infer an illicit drug overdose in only 42% (n = 188) of cases. Majority of presentations with T or F overdose codes recorded only one diagnostic code per encounter (83%) and representing multiple-drug overdose (F19.- = 18%) or unidentified substances (T50.9 = 17%) using a single, broad diagnostic code was common. CONCLUSIONS: Reliance on diagnoses alone when examining ED data will likely significantly underestimate incidence of specific drug overdose due to frequent use of non-specific ICD-10 codes and the use of single diagnostic codes to represent polysubstance overdose. Measures to improve coding specificity should be considered and further work is needed to determine the best way to use ED data in overdose surveillance.
MIX was funded by The Colonial Foundation Trust and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC Grant #545891, 1126090, and the Centre for Research Excellence into Injecting Drug Use, APP1001144). The Burnet Institute receives valuable support from the Victorian Operational Infrastructure Support Program. PD is a recipient of an NHMRC Research Fellowship (1136908) and has received funding from Gilead Sciences Inc. for an investigator-driven grant and an untied educational grant from Reckitt Benckiser for work unrelated to this study. MS is a recipient of an NHMRC Research Fellowship and has received support through CREIDU for work unrelated to this study.