Many Doctors Not Confident Prescribing Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

Nearly two-thirds of physicians who prescribe opioids say they are not confident or only somewhat confident about managing patients on opioid painkillers, according to the results of a new survey that found widespread gaps in education about opioid safety.

"This indicates a critical need for provider education addressing this issue. It is important our medical community is given the training it needs to confidently manage chronic pain while significantly reducing prescription opioid misuse, overdose and diversion," said Daniel Alford, MD, of Boston University School of Medicine.

Boston University and Haymarket Medical Education conducted an online survey of nearly 800 physicians who are registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration to prescribe Schedule II and III controlled substances.

Over a quarter (28%) said they had not completed certified medical education (CME) in safe opioid prescribing. Many also said they lacked the time or staff to implement an opioid monitoring system for patients, such as drug testing and pill counts.

"It's troubling that so many physicians say implementing safe opioid prescribing systems is not a priority, even though this is an acute issue. We've created a situation where some physicians are comfortable not doing anything about it,” said Alford.

Only a quarter of the doctors surveyed said they were very confident about their ability to safely manage chronic pain with opioid pain medication. Four out of ten said they don’t even prescribe opioids.

 “Lack of knowledge regarding some narcotics. Concerns of dealing with patients who appear to be drug seeking. Lack of time to follow some of these patients closely,” said one doctor who was not confident about prescribing opioids.

“Lack of training. Fear of providing access to patients who might abuse opioids,” said another.

Pain education for doctors – or the lack of it – is such a concern that the recently released National Pain Strategy considers it a top priority.

“Many health professionals, especially physicians, are not adequately prepared and require greater knowledge and skills to contribute to the cultural transformation in the perception and treatment of people with pain,” a draft version of the report states. “Core competencies in pain care are not fully developed and generally do not inform undergraduate curricula in health professions schools or graduate training programs, even those in pain medicine.”

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Pain  called pain education in the U.S. and Canada “lackluster” and warned that unless steps were taken to improve the training of pain physicians, “the crisis in pain care and resultant deaths from opioid abuse will only spiral upwards.”

The study of 117 U.S. and Canadian medical schools found that less than 4% required a course in pain education and only one in six schools offered a pain elective. A large number of U.S. medical schools do not have any pain courses and many of those that do have less than five hours of classes.