Surgeons Reduce Rx Opioids Without Increasing Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Surgeons in Michigan have reduced the amount of opioid medication prescribed to patients recovering from common operations by nearly a third -- without causing patients to feel more postoperative pain.

In a new research letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team from the Michigan Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network (OPEN) reported on the results of a statewide effort to get surgical teams to follow prescribing guidelines for postoperative pain.

In just one year, surgeons at 43 Michigan hospitals reduced the number of opioid pills prescribed to patients after nine common operations, from an average of 26 pills per patient to an average of 18.

The surgeries included minor hernia repair, appendix and gallbladder removal, and hysterectomies. Most were minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries.

The ratings patients gave for their post-surgical pain and satisfaction didn't change from the ratings given by patients treated in the six months before opioids were reduced.

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Researchers say patients only took about half the opioids prescribed to them, even as the prescription sizes shrank. They attribute this to improved counseling about pain expectations and non-opioid pain control options.

"The success of the statewide effort suggests an opportunity for other states to build on Michigan's experience, and room for even further reductions in prescription size," said Michael Englesbe, MD, a University of Michigan surgery professor. "At the same time, we need to make sure that patients also know how to safely dispose of any leftover opioids they don't take."

The study involved over 11,700 patients who had operations at hospitals participating in the Michigan Surgical Quality Collaborative. About half of the patients also filled out surveys sent to their homes after their operations, asking about their pain, satisfaction and opioid use after surgery.

The Michigan-OPEN team has been working since 2016 to reduce opioid prescribing and quantify the appropriate number of pills patients should take. Their research led to the the development of new guidelines that were first tested on gallbladder surgery patients before being expanded to other types of surgery.

Some hospitals have stopped giving opioids to surgical patients. Patients at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital get acetaminophen, gabapentin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to manage their pain before and after colorectal operations – and their surgeons say the treatment results in better patient outcomes

It’s a common misconception that many patients become addicted to opioids after surgery. A 2016 Canadian study, for example, found that long term opioid use after surgery is rare, with less than one percent of older adults still taking opioid pain medication a year after major elective surgery.

Another large study in the British Medical Journal found similar results. Only 0.2% of patients who were prescribed opioids for post-surgical pain were later diagnosed with opioid dependence, abuse or a non-fatal overdose.

Another fallacy is that leftover pain medication is often stolen, sold or given away. The DEA says less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted.

Older Americans Rarely Abuse Opioid Medication

By Pat Anson, Editor

Three out of four older Americans who are prescribed opioid pain medication say they take it less often or in lower amounts than prescribed, according to a new national poll. Only 6 percent said they took opioids more frequently or in higher doses than prescribed.

The online survey of over 2,000 adults between the ages of 50 and 80 was conducted in March by the University of Michigan's Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.  The poll was sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M's academic medical center.

Nearly a third of those surveyed said they received an opioid prescription in the past two years, usually for arthritis, back pain, surgery or injury. About half of those had leftover medication.

While most were cautious about their use of opioids, what they did with the leftover meds was cause for concern. The vast majority (86%) said they kept it in case they had pain again. Only 9% threw their opioids in the trash or flushed it down the toilet, and 13% returned it to an approved location.

"The fact that so many older adults report having leftover opioid pills is a big problem, given the risk of abuse and addiction with these medications," said Alison Bryant, PhD, senior vice president of research for AARP. "Having unused opioids in the house, often stored in unlocked medicine cabinets, is a big risk to other family members as well.”

The researchers suspect that many older adults fear that they will not be able to obtain pain medication when needed because of laws and guidelines that discourage opioid prescribing. Several states now mandate that initial opioid prescriptions for acute pain be limited to a few days’ supply.

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Ironically, while many older Americans may worry about losing access to opioid medication, nearly three out of four (74%) support restrictions on the number of days and pills that can be prescribed. And nearly half would support laws that require leftover medication to be returned.

The poll also found that doctors do not consistently warn patients about the risks associated with opioids. While 90% of those surveyed said their prescribing doctor talked with them about how often to take pain medication, only 60% were warned about side effects and less than half of the doctors cautioned patients about the risks of addiction and overdose or what to do with leftover pills.

A full report on the National Poll on Healthy Aging can be found by clicking here.