Researchers at Boston Medical Center used a national database of prescription information to assess the likelihood of continued opioid prescriptions after a non-fatal overdose. They looked at prescription information from 3,000 patients who experienced a non-fatal overdose between 2000 and 2012. These patients were all prescribed opioids for chronic, non-cancer pain.
Think about this: These 3,000 patients have already overdosed on prescription opioids. They are lucky to be alive. Surely, their healthcare providers will find another way, another mechanism, another approach to managing their pain. The risk here isn't illness or infection or a change in blood pressure... it's death.
The bad news:
- Over 90% of these patients continued to receive opioids after their non-fatal overdose event
- 50% of these continued to receive the prescriptions from the same doctor
- 7% of the original group experienced a second overdose
- Two years after the first overdose, those with continuing opioid prescriptions were twice as likely to experience a second overdose event compared to those who were no longer receiving opioids.
Why is this is happening?
First, our fragmented healthcare system doesn't make it easy for prescribing physicians to discover the clinical events experienced by their patients outside of their immediate purview. And patients may not want to disclose an overdose event for fear of having their medications discontinued. I get that. And it makes we wonder whether PDMPs should also include the ability for inpatient settings to report both fatal and non-fatal overdose events to the database so doctors can see this information whether its reported by the patient or not. Linking electronic health records to PDMP systems would be a good start down this path.
The second phenomenon driving these sorry statistics is that doctors are not comfortable weaning opioid (and other) medications. No one, least of all me, would ever suggest immediate cessation of opioid therapy in light of a non-fatal overdose. That's clinically irresponsible and potentially dangerous for the patient. But the necessary steps forward are complicated: If the patient is on multiple medications that require weaning, which should we weaned first? What titration steps should be used? Is medication-assisted-therapy (MAT) an option? Should I refer the patient or try to handle this myself? These are hard questions and the primary care community, by far the most frequent prescribers of opioids, is currently ill-equipped to handle them.
Welcome to 2016. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.
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