Patients Receiving Too Many Opioids, Study Says

Researchers found that too many opioids are being given to patients who don't need them.

Prescription pills image via shutterstock

Prescription pills image via shutterstock

We already know that antibiotics are being overprescribed nationwide, and now a new study shows that opioids are also being overprescribed in hospitals.

The study, conducted by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, reveals that more than 50 percent of nonsurgical patients were given high doses of opioids during their hospitalizations. Furthermore, the study says, half of those 50 percent still received these doses on the day they were released from the hospital.

Opioids are the classification of narcotic pain medications that include morphine, oxycodone, and fentanyl. The CDC reports that over the last ten years, fatal overdoses due to opioids quadrupled, and more than 14,000 people die from opioids every year.

Keeping these statistics in mind, researchers at Beth Israel studied almost 1.2 million nonsurgical patients in 286 hospitals nationwide between July 2009 and June 2010. These patients were admitted to the hospital for acute infections, heart problems, cancer, and musculoskeletal injuries. Researchers discovered that 43 percent of patients were given more than one opioid during their stay at the hospital, and the average dose was around 68 milligrams—a very high dose, according to the Beth Israel team. Of all patients, 23 percent received a dose of 100 milligrams or more at least once during their stay.

Dr. Shoshana J. Herzig, a hospitalist at Beth Israel and lead author of the study said in a press release:

“Prior studies have found that higher opioid doses are associated with a heightened risk of adverse events. Patients receiving doses of 100 mg per day or more are at substantially greater risk for serious problems, including severe breathing problems.”

Additionally, 26 percent of patients were given opioid doses on the day they were discharged from the hospital. According to the research team, this means that these patients most likely went home with an opioid prescription, because opioid doses are tapered off and not halted abruptly. Herzig says, “Unless physicians are diligent about checking on other opioid prescriptions that a patient may have received in another setting, this means that patients could wind up with multiple opioid prescriptions, thus increasing the likelihood of an inadvertent overdose or other adverse event.”

The researchers hope that this study will encourage doctors to be very aware of their patients’ prior medications and be more vigilant about prescriptions for complicated drugs like opioids.

For more information on the treatment of chronic pain and how to responsibly prescribe pain medications, visit Boston University’s School of Medicine Continuing Medical Education’s Scope of Pain program website.