Some Docs May Help Fuel Opioid Abuse Epidemic

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 15, 2017 (HealthDay News) — You may be more likely to wind up a long-term user of opioid painkillers if you’re treated by a doctor who frequently prescribes those drugs, a new study reports.

Emergency room patients are at greater risk for long-term opioid use even after a single prescription from an ER doctor who regularly prescribes the painkillers, researchers found.

“If a patient happened to see a high opioid-prescribing doctor, their chance of getting an opioid is over three times higher,” said study author Dr. Michael Barnett. He’s an assistant professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

“Patients who are treated by frequent prescribers also are 30 percent more likely to develop long-term use over the next year,” Barnett continued.

One out of every 48 people newly prescribed an opioid will become a long-term user, based on the researchers’ analysis.

The results show there’s a real need for better guidelines regarding the use of opioid painkillers such as morphine, oxycodone (OxyContin), codeine and fentanyl, Barnett said.

“We don’t really have metrics we can agree upon that quantify appropriate versus inappropriate prescribing,” Barnett said.

“In the end, doctors are just using their own judgment and making things up as they go along in terms of how and when to prescribe opioid medications,” he said.

Drug overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999. More than six out of 10 overdose deaths involve opioid drugs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ninety-one people die every day in America from prescription opioids or heroin, the agency says.

Prescriptions for opioids have nearly quadrupled since 1999 even though there’s been no overall change in Americans’ reported pain levels, according to the CDC.

For the study, Barnett and his colleagues reviewed Medicare emergency room visits. This provided a natural experimental setting, Barnett said. Patients don’t choose the ER doctor who treats them, and come in with a wide variety of health problems.

The researchers reviewed medical records for more than 375,000 Medicare beneficiaries treated by more than 14,000 ER doctors between 2008 and 2011. The doctors were sorted based on how often patients left the hospital with an opioid prescription.

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