ATHENS — The nation's deepening opioid epidemic is hitting Georgia harder than most states, experts say.
That's one of the messages that came out of a recent conference at the University of Georgia.
Some of the highest opioid use is in the Rust Belt and the Southeast, authorities said.
Medicaid statistics show high opioid use in parts of southeast Georgia, northwest Georgia and several counties to the north and east of Athens, The Athens Banner-Herald reports.
From 2009 to 2014, Georgia's rate of increase in the number of patient encounters related to opioids led the nation, said Michael Crooks of Alliant Quality, a healthcare consulting firm.
The University of Georgia College of Public Health's annual "State of the Public's Health" conference took place Tuesday.
Nationwide, prescriptions for such drugs as fentanyl, methadone and hydrocodone have tripled since the early 1990s, Crooks said.
Nationwide, healthcare workers are now seeing more than 30,000 opioid-related deaths a year, 10 times that many hospital admissions and a million emergency room visits.
The opioid epidemic hasn't developed the way other drug-related tragedies have unfolded, said UGA pharmacy professor Henry Young, citing another set of statistics during the session on health literacy and the opioid crisis in Georgia.
When people use painkillers for some reason outside of what they've been prescribed for, they're not getting the drugs from dealers, he explained, showing numbers from a recent study. The most likely source — more than 54 percent of the time — is a friend.
Another 10 percent of the time, they're bought from a friend and about 20 percent of the time, the drugs have been prescribed. Dealers or strangers only account for about 4 percent of sources, Young said.
Many people don't know the risks, but medical organizations are working with physicians, pharmacists and other health care professionals to better explain the drugs' uses and hazards, according to Crooks.
"We do a pretty poor job of putting time into discussing these medications," he said.
The drugs are prescribed mainly for pain relief, though they're also used for such purposes as diarrhea treatment and cough suppression. Their use can lead to addiction or dependence — and in the case of overdose, death.