Patients at Ohio Hospital Have Surgery Without Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Would you want to go through a major surgery without the use of opioid pain medication?

Patients at an Ohio hospital are getting 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.

“Over 75 percent of our elective colorectal patients underwent surgery without requiring narcotic analgesics postoperatively, including after discharge,” says Sophia Horattas, MD, of Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital.  “During this time period our patient satisfaction scores improved as well as patients' perceptions of pain control.”

All eight general surgeons at Akron General adopted the non-opioid treatment protocol in 2016, applying it to patients who had elective colon operations. Prior to surgery, the patients were all educated about pain management, non-opioid analgesics, and the risks associated with opioids.

Researchers evaluated 155 of the patients and presented their findings this week at the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress in Boston.

Overall, 83 percent (128) of the patients did not need opioid medication after their operations. Among those who did, use of opioids before surgery was often an indicator that they would want them again. Nine of the 15 patients who had prior experience with opioids used them again after surgery.

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Among the remaining 140 patients who did not use opioids before surgery, 85 percent (119) did not need opioid medication for pain relief.

The researchers found that patients who used opioid painkillers typically spent more time in the hospital; an average of 2.7 days vs. 2.3 days for the non-narcotic group.

“Patient education played a large role in protocol compliance, and patient satisfaction improved as they were able to avoid prolonged fasting, achieve improved pain control without the side effects of narcotic analgesia, and be discharged home earlier,” said Horrattas.

For pre-emptive analgesia before surgery, patients received one dose of acetaminophen, gabapentin, and the NSAID celecoxib (Celebrex).  In the operating room, patients received a nerve block and underwent anesthesia with the non-opioid pain relievers ketamine and lidocaine.   

Surgeons at Akron General have since adopted the non-opioid protocol for other major abdominal operations, such as bariatric procedures, gynecological and genital/urinary tract procedures, and liver and gall bladder operations.

“One of the great things about our protocol is its reproducibility.  Once we developed our program, we found that it could be standardized across departments with consistently reproducible results,” said Horattas.

Akron General’s protocol is similar to guidelines adopted by the American Pain Society (APS) for postoperative pain care. The APS also encourages the use of non-opioid medications such as acetaminophen, NSAIDs, gabapentin (Neurotin) and pregabalin (Lyrica).  

Akron General gets below average ratings for patient satisifaction from Hospital Compare, a Medicare survey that asks patients about their experiences during a recent hospital stay. The hospital received only two of a possible five stars, which places it in the bottom third of hospitals nationwide. Only 68% of Akron General’s patients said they would definitely recommend the hospital.

According to Healthgrades, 3 percent of the patients died after a colorectal surgery at Akron General, which is slightly below the national average for that procedure.

Opioid Addiction Rare After Surgery

In recent years, many hospitals have shifted away from routinely giving patients opioids during and after major surgeries -- even though it is rare for patients to become chronic opioid users.

A large Canadian study found that only 0.4% of elderly patients that were prescribed opioids while recovering from a heart, lung, colon, prostate or hysterectomy operation were still using them a year after their surgeries.

Another large study published this year 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.

Long-term opioid use after dental surgeries is also rare. A recent study published in JAMA found that only 1.3% of teens and young adults who were given opioids after wisdom teeth removal were still being prescribed opioids months after their initial prescription.

The vast majority of patients still prefer opioids and perceive them as the most effective form of pain relief after surgery. In a recent survey of over 500 adults who were scheduled to have surgery, researchers at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia found that 77% expected opioids, 37% expected acetaminophen, and 18% expected a NSAID for pain relief.

"Patients often assume they will receive opioids for pain, believing they are superior, and therefore may pressure physicians to prescribe them after surgery," said lead author Nirmal Shah, DO, an anesthesia resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

"But research shows opioids often aren't necessarily more effective. Clearly, we need to provide more education to bridge that gap and help patients understand that there are many options for pain relief after surgery, including other pain medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen."

Study Advocates Guidelines for Postoperative Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Patients recovering from gallbladder surgery need only about a third of the opioid painkillers that are prescribed to them, according to a small new study that could lay the groundwork for new national guidelines on treating postoperative pain.

Researchers at the University of Michigan looked at prescribing data on 170 people who had their gallbladders surgically removed in a laparoscopic cholecystectomy and found that the average patient received an opioid prescription for 250mg morphine equivalent units. That's about 50 pills.

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But when the researchers interviewed 100 of those patients, the amount of opioid medication they actually took after their surgeries averaged only 30mg, or about 6 pills. The remaining pills were often left sitting in their medicine cabinets for years.

"For a long time, there has been no rhyme or reason to surgical opioid prescribing, compared with all the other efforts that have been made to improve surgical care," says lead author Ryan Howard, MD, a resident in the U-M Department of Surgery who began the study while attending the medical school.

"We've been overprescribing because no one had ever really asked what's the right amount. We knew we could do better."

When U-M surgical leaders heard about the findings, they gave Howard and his colleagues permission to develop a new prescribing guideline that recommended just 15 opioid pills for gallbladder patients.

Five months later, the average prescription for the first 200 patients treated under the guideline dropped by 66 percent -- to 75mg morphine equivalent units. Requests for opioid refills didn't increase, as some had feared, but the percentage of patients getting a prescription for “safer” non-opioid painkillers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen more than doubled.

Interviews with 86 of the patients who received the smaller prescriptions showed they had the same level of pain control as those treated before -- even though they took fewer opioid painkillers. A new education guide for patients counseled them to take pain medication only as long as they have pain, and to reserve the opioid pills for pain that's not controlled by ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

"Even though the guidelines were a radical departure from their current practice, attending surgeons and residents really embraced them," said U-M researcher Jay Lee, MD. "It was very rewarding to see how effective these guidelines were in reducing excess opioid prescribing."

Researchers estimate that implementing the new guideline has kept more than 13,000 excess opioid pills out of circulation in the year since the rollout began. Their findings were published in JAMA Surgery.

U-M researchers have expanded on their efforts by developing prescribing guidelines for 11 other common surgeries, including hysterectomies and hernia repair. They believe the guidelines could serve “as a template for statewide practice transformation” and could be adopted nationally as well.   

It’s a common misconception that many patients become addicted to opioid medication after surgery. According to a recent national survey, one in ten patients believe they became addicted or dependent on opioids after they started taking them for post-operative pain. But a recent study in Canada 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 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.

Many patients are dissatisfied with the quality of pain care in hospitals. In a survey of over 1,200 patients by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation, 60 percent said their pain was not adequately controlled in a hospital after a surgery or treatment. And over half rated the quality of their hospital pain care as either poor or very poor.