Steep Decline in New Opioid Prescriptions

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The number of doctors writing new prescriptions for opioid pain medication has fallen by nearly a third in recent years, according to a large but limited study that documents a dramatic shift in opioid prescribing patterns in the U.S.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School studied health data for over 86 million patients insured by Blue Cross Blue Shield from 2012 to 2017, and found that first-time prescriptions for patients new to opioids – known as “opioid naïve” patients -- declined by 54 percent.

At the start of the study, 1.63% of Blue Cross Blue Shield patients were being treated with new opioid prescriptions. Five years later, only 0.75% were.

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The study also found a shrinking pool of doctors willing to start opioid treatment. The number of doctors who prescribed opioids for opioid naive patients decreased by nearly 30 percent, from 114,043 to 80,462 providers.

The research findings, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, do not provide any context on the patients’ health conditions or the severity of their pain and injuries. As such, it is a data-mining study that provides no real information on the harms or benefits of opioids.

"The challenge we have in front of us is nothing short of intricate: Curbing the opioid epidemic while ensuring that we appropriately treat pain," lead investigator Nicole Maestas, PhD, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement. "It's a question of balancing the justified use of potent pain medications against the risk for opioid misuse and abuse."

First-time prescriptions for opioids are usually used to treat short-term acute pain caused by trauma, accidents or surgery. They rarely result in long-term opioid use or addiction, but have become a major target for healthcare policymakers and anti-opioid activists. Several states have adopted regulations that limit the initial supply of opioids to 7 days or less.

While the number of doctors starting opioid therapy has fallen dramatically, Harvard researchers say many are still engaged in “high-risk prescribing” – which they defined as new prescriptions for more than 3 days’ supply or a daily dose that exceeds 50 morphine milligram equivalent (MME).

More than 115,000 of these “high-risk prescriptions” were written monthly for Blue Cross Blue Shield patients. Over 7,700 of the prescriptions exceeded 90 MME per day, a dose that researchers say puts patients at a substantially higher risk of an overdose. The study did not identify whether any of those high-dose patients experienced an overdose.

Opioid prescriptions in the U.S. have fallen sharply since their peak in 2010, but have yet to slow the rising tide of overdoses. Nearly 49,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2017, over half of them due to illicit fentanyl and heroin, not prescription opioids.