By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
Nearly three quarters of primary care doctors (72%) worry that chronic pain patients will use illicit drugs if they lose access to prescription opioids, according to a new survey by Quest Diagnostics. And 77% believe the stigma surrounding drug addiction impairs patient care.
Despite concerns about patient stigma and illegal drug use, the online survey of 500 physicians found that 8 out of 10 doctors are reluctant to take on new patients who are currently prescribed opioids.
“Quest Diagnostics undertook this research so that we could provide insights into the evolving drug crisis and the potential role of physicians’ perspectives about their patients in drug misuse and use disorders,” said Harvey Kaufman, MD, Senior Medical Director, Quest Diagnostics.
“We found that primary care physicians, who are on the front lines of the drug epidemic, are well-intentioned but under-prepared and may miss some of the drug misuse risks affecting their patients.”
Quest compared the survey results to an analysis of 4.4 million drug tests ordered by physicians for patients prescribed opioids and other controlled substances. The findings suggest that many physicians have a poor understanding of their patients’ drug use.
For example, Quest found that over half of patients (51%) showed signs of misusing a prescribed drug, yet 72% of physicians believe their patients take controlled medications as prescribed.
Quest broadly defines drug “misuse” by including the absence of a prescribed medication. Many patients choose not to take a drug because they can’t afford it, don’t like its side effects, or feel they don’t need it. Patients required to have drug tests are also not representative of the general population.
Other key findings:
62% of doctors believe the opioid crisis will morph into a prescription drug crisis
24% of patients combined legal medications with other non-prescribed drugs or illicit substances
95% of doctors are confident in their ability discuss drug misuse with patients, but only 55% actually do
70% of doctors wish they had more training on how to taper patients off opioids.
75% of doctors wish they had more training on addiction
The Quest lab tests also found concerning results about the misuse of gabapentin (Neurontin), an anti-convulsant drug increasingly prescribed to treat pain. Over 13% of patients showed signs of misusing gabapentin in 2018, making it the mostly commonly misused prescription drug.
Nearly 8 out of 10 doctors (78%) said they often prescribe gabapentin as an alternative to opioids, but only 34% were concerned about its misuse.
“A vast majority of physicians recognize the need for more tools to prevent opioid drug misuse and substance use disorders, and that is why many are tightening opioid prescribing and turning to gabapentin as an alternative,” said pain specialist Jeffrey Gudin, MD, Senior Medical Advisor, Quest Diagnostics.
“While gabapentin may not have opioids’ addictive potential, it can exaggerate euphoric effects when combined with opioids or anxiety medications. This drug mixing is dangerous.”
Gabapentin and pregabalin (Lyrica) belong to a class of nerve medication known as gabapentinoids. A recent study found gabapentinoids increase the risk of suicide, overdose, traffic accidents and injuries in younger people. Sales of gabapentinoids have tripled in recent years in the United States, where they are often promoted in prescribing guidelines as safer alternatives to opioids.