By Pat Anson, Editor
Over half of Americans “misused” their prescription drugs last year, according to a new report by a drug testing company that appears to draw several broad and misleading conclusions about the use of opioid pain medication.
Quest Diagnostics analyzed drug testing data from over 3 million patients and found that 54% had some type of prescription drug misuse in 2015 – down from 63% in 2011.
"The key takeaway from this massive, nationally representative analysis is that despite some gains, a large number of patients use prescription drugs inappropriately and even dangerously," said co-researcher Harvey W. Kaufman, MD, senior medical director for Quest Diagnostics.
"The CDC's recent recommendations to physicians to carefully weigh the risks and benefits of opioid drug therapy are a step in the right direction, but clearly more needs to be done to address this public health crisis."
The term “misuse” should be taken with a grain of salt, because it does not mean patients were abusing or addicted to prescription drugs – only that they did not take them as directed.
In 2015, for example, the study found that over half (55%) of the patients who had “inconsistent” test results did not have a prescribed drug in their system – meaning they no longer felt a need to take a medication, didn’t like the drug’s side effects, forgot to take it, or simply couldn’t afford it. It could also mean the drug was ineffective. the wrong drug was prescribed or the doctor made an incorrect diagnosis. There are literally dozens of reasons someone could stop taking a drug.
But patients who had no drugs detected – legal or illegal – were still classified in the “misuse" category.
Nevertheless, while acknowledging there were “methodology limitations” to the study, Quest made some sweeping conclusions about it in a press release, claiming that “the majority of American adults taking opioids and other commonly prescribed medications use them in ways that put their health at risk.”
But according to the study, opioids were not the most commonly misused class of medication. Depending on the age of the patient, that distinction went to amphetamines, benzodiazepines and marijuana. Opiates were the second most likely class of drugs to be misused by adults – but again that includes many patients who did not take opioids that were prescribed or had no drugs at all in their system.
This way of slicing the data has long been used by drug testing companies to make the abuse of opioids appear worse than it is and to justify more testing.
A similar study by Ameritox in 2012 found that nearly a third of older patients did not have a prescribed opioid detected in their urine -- and that was also considered misuse.
“This population has a risk of medication misuse and illicit drug use that warrants attention,” said Harry Leider, MD, who was then Chief Medical Officer of Ameritox. “This data provides a compelling rationale for routinely monitoring medication use in older patients on chronic opioids.”
Ameritox sponsored a study that same year claiming that patients should be drug tested at least four times annually if a doctor believes they are at risk misusing opioids. The study was approved even though “there currently is a limited evidence base to support the expert panel’s recommendations.”
Guidelines adopted by the CDC earlier this year were also based on weak evidence. They recommend that physicians should use urine drug testing before starting opioid therapy and should re-test patients at least once annually.
As Pain News Network has reported, “point-of-care” urine drug tests that are widely used in doctors’ offices are wrong about half the time – frequently giving false positive or false negative results for drugs like marijuana, oxycodone and methadone.
According to one estimate, drug testing has grown into a lucrative $4 billion dollar a year industry -- “liquid gold” as some have called it – that is projected to reach $6.3 billion by 2019. The competition between drug screening labs is intense and several companies have been fined by the federal government for giving illegal kickbacks to physicians. Last year, Millennium Health agreed to pay $256 million to the federal government to settle fraud and kickback charges. The company later filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.