Do Half of Americans Really ‘Misuse’ Drugs?

By Pat Anson, Editor

One of the nation’s largest drug testing companies has released a study claiming that over half of Americans who are prescribed medication show signs of drug misuse, including potentially dangerous drug combinations.

In 2016, Quest Diagnostics found that 52% of patient test results were “inconsistent” with their prescribed medications. That was an improvement over the rate found in 2011, when 63% of samples were inconsistent.

The Quest report, titled "Prescription Drug Misuse in America: Diagnostic Insights in the Growing Drug Epidemic," is based on an analysis of 3.4 million laboratory tests performed between 2011 and 2016.

Many of the specimen samples came from patients being treated in pain management and addiction treatment clinics, which are not representative of the population as a whole.

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Like previous studies of its kind, Quest broadly defines what constitutes drug “misuse” – a misleading term many people associate with abuse, addiction and diversion. Nearly a quarter of the patients (23%) with inconsistent results had no drugs detected in their system, which simply means they were not taking medications as directed.

The other 77% tested positive for illegal drugs or for a medication they were not prescribed.

"Over the past several years, federal and state government, clinician organizations, public health advocates and providers have all launched campaigns to educate the public about the perils of prescription drug misuse, which hypothetically should have yielded a significant rate of improvement. Yet our study shows that every other American tested for possible inappropriate use of opioids and other prescription drugs is potentially at risk," said F. Leland McClure, PhD, director of medical affairs at Quest Diagnostics.

"This finding is rather shocking, and speaks to the challenges of combating the nation's drug misuse epidemic."

Are the results really all that shocking? Or were they ginned up to hype the so-called epidemic? Consider some of the reasons a patient may not take a drug or have an inconsistent test result:

  • Patient didn't like side effects from a medication
  • Pain or other symptoms have subsided, so medication is not needed
  • Patient skipped a dose
  • Patient cannot afford a medication
  • Patient can’t find a pharmacy willing to fill their prescription
  • Patient may be a “rapid metabolizer” of a medication
  • Physician may not be aware another doctor prescribed a drug
  • Inaccurate drug test

The latter is a very real problem in the drug testing industry. As PNN has reported, “point-of-care” urine tests widely used by pain management and addiction treatment doctors to screen patients for illicit drug use are wrong about half the time, often giving false positive or false negative results for drugs like marijuana, oxycodone and methadone. 

The Quest study identified some disturbing and encouraging trends in drug use.

It wasn't opioids but benzodiazepines – a class of anti-anxiety medication that includes Xanax – that were most likely to be misused by adults over the age of 25.  Marijuana was most likely to be misused by people aged 18 to 24.   Opioids were second in both age groups.

Quest researchers found a striking decline in drug misuse among adolescents 10 to 17 years of age. The inconsistency rate for adolescents dropped from a whopping 70% in 2011 to 29% in 2016. Amphetamines and attention deficit disorder drugs were most likely to be abused by adolescents.

Among nearly 34,000 patient samples tested for opioids, alcohol and benzodiazepines, more than 20% were positive for opioids and benzodiazepines, 10% were positive for alcohol and opioids, and 3% were positive for all three.  Any combination of these drugs raises the risk of respiratory depression and overdose.

Misuse rates were higher for men and women of reproductive age (58%) than in the general study population (52%). The findings are significant because opioid and benzodiazepine use may decrease male fertility and, if taken during pregnancy, increase the risk of birth defects and other health concerns.

Quest is one of several drug testing laboratories that have been fined millions of dollars for paying kickbacks to physicians and patients for medically unnecessary tests.  Recent guidelines adopted by the American Society of Addiction Medicine warn doctors about ordering expensive drug tests that have led to “unethical and/or fraudulent activities.”

Study Depicts Half of Americans as Rx Abusers

 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.