By Pat Anson, Editor
Numerous studies have shown that opioid prescriptions are falling. The trend started in 2011 and appears to have accelerated since the release of the CDC’s 2016 opioid prescribing guidelines.
The volume of opioid medication filled last year fell by 12 percent, the largest decline in 25 years, according to the IQVIA Institute. Prescriptions for hydrocodone – once the most widely prescribed drug in the country – have fallen by a third since their peak. Even the CDC has reported that opioid prescriptions have dropped by about 5% each year between 2012 and 2016.
Anecdotally, many patients tell us opioids are harder, if not impossible, to obtain. Nearly half of the 3,100 patients PNN surveyed last year said they were getting a lower dose. And one in four said they were no longer prescribed opioids.
But according to Mayo Clinic researchers, opioid prescribing hasn't changed that much and remains at high levels. In a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), they report that opioid prescriptions for Medicare and privately insured patients have remained relatively stable over the past few years. And the average daily dose of opioids is well above what it was 10 years ago.
“If you’re hearing the message that prescription opioid use is starting to decline, I think we need to counter that message and say in most populations it really isn’t moving very much.” says lead author Molly Jeffery, PhD, scientific director of the Mayo Clinic Division of Emergency Medicine Research. “Our data suggest not much has changed in prescription opioid use since about five years ago.”
Why the discrepancy? Jeffrey says most of the previous studies only looked at market-level data – the amount of opioids that drug makers reported producing and selling. She and her colleagues dug a little deeper, looking at insurance claims for 48 million U.S. patients between 2007 and 2016.
Over that 10-year period, the rate of opioid use by privately insured patients remained relatively flat at 6 to 7 percent. The average daily dose for that group, about two pills of 5-milligram oxycodone, remained the same.
The rate of opioid use by Medicare patients 65 and older peaked at 15% in 2010 and decreased slightly to 14% by 2016. Their average daily dose, three 5 mg pills of oxycodone, also remained relatively unchanged.
Rates of opioid use by disabled Medicare patients also haven't changed much, peaking at 41% in 2013 and falling to 39% in 2016. Their average daily dose remains relatively high, about eight 5 mg oxycodone pills.
“Our research of patient-level data doesn’t show the decline that was found in previous research,” says Jeffery. “We wanted to know how the declines were experienced by individual people. Did fewer people have opioid prescriptions? Did people taking opioids take less over time? When we looked at it that way, we found a different picture.”
The Mayo study includes an interesting disclaimer. While the researchers looked at data from patient insurance claims, they never surveyed or spoke to any patients about their opioid use. The researchers said they would “engage” with patients in future blog posts and press releases.
You can share your views with Molly Jeffery by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @mollyjeffery on Twitter.