The more frequent your doctor prescribes you opioids, the more chances you have at developing long-term dependence on these powerful medications, a new study reveals.
The opioid epidemic has devastated communities across the United States. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that deaths from opioid overdoses have risen by 72 percent in 2015. Excessive opioid use has also been linked to the risk of depression.
All these have prompted researchers to become more concerned in finding a starting point to excessive opioid use and prevent its increase.
Now, in the new research, a team of experts from Boston reviewed medical records and sorted out the opioid prescriptions of thousands of Medicare patients. Their findings highlight the need to tighten guidelines on opioids.
Patterns Of Opioid Prescription
Researchers investigated 375,000 records of Medicare patients who had emergency visits with a wide range of complaints in 2008 to 2011. They calculated the frequency of opioid prescriptions made by emergency room doctors who treated these patients.
The study found that the prescribing patterns of doctors was a crucial factor in future opioid use.
Michael Barnett, lead author of the study and assistant professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said if a patient was treated by a high opioid-prescribing doctor, the likelihood of getting an opioid is three times higher.
In fact, Barnett and his colleagues found that patients who had been treated by frequent opioid prescribers had 30 percent higher chances of developing long-term use in a year. What's more, one out of 48 patients who were newly prescribed with the painkiller becomes a long-term user, the study said.
Guidelines On Opioid Prescriptions
Barnett said the research suggests there is a real need to regulate the use of opioid painkillers in the country, particularly painkillers such as oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl, and codeine.
At the end of the day, physicians use their own metrics of judgments as they go along treating and prescribing medications to patients, said Barnett.
"There is no consensus among E.R. doctors who are treating similar patients about when to prescribe opioids and what dose to give, and the lack of guidance for how to treat acute pain," he said.
He said the report did not aim to single out emergency room doctors as the source for the opioid epidemic, and that most opioid prescriptions are written by primary care physicians.
Lastly, Barnett suggested that the best way to tackle the issue is by sharing prescribing patterns among doctors to form a uniform prescribing practice.
"More scrutiny and purpose of thinking needs to go into the decision process of continuing opioid treatment," added Barnett.
Details of the new report are published in the New England Journal of Medicine.