A new study out of UNC shows that the number of hospitalizations and surgeries to treat drug-related infective endocarditis have skyrocketed over the past decade.

Endocarditis is an infection of the heart valves that generally affects those over the age of 50, but  it can also be caused by opioid use. Advanced cases can require open-heart surgery and heart valve replacement.

Author of the recent study and fellow in the UNC Division of Infectious Diseases Asher Schranz calls endocarditis a complicated and severe infection.

“The typical national length of stay for hospitalization in the country is about four to five days,” says Schranz. “For people with drug related endocarditis, the median length of stay is 11 days. For people who require heart valve surgery to treat their endocarditis, the median length of stay is about four weeks.”

Treatment and hospital stay for endocarditis can cause patients to accumulate over $250,000 in charges, Schranz says, which is especially overwhelming for a patient base that can often be uninsured.

“This is posing a large burden to healthcare systems in the state, and that means both individual hospitals as well as state insurance payers, primarily Medicaid,” says Schranz.

According to the study, 73 percent of patients with drug-associated infective endocarditis are uninsured or on Medicaid, which means the cost of treatment and hospitalization are absorbed by hospitals and government budgets.

Schranz believes the best way to deal with the problem is to treat the root of the issue: addiction.

“There are hurdles to addressing the underlying addiction,” says Schranz. “This is due to numerous reasons, including the fact that a lot of these patients do not have insurance, many may come from remote or rural areas where there may not be providers that treat addiction nearby them, and a number of other factors.”

More than 280 drug-associated endocarditis valve replacement surgeries have been performed in North Carolina in the past decade.