99% Of Doctors Overprescribe Opiate Painkillers

April 1, 2016

A new survey by the National Safety Council concludes 99 percent of doctors overprescribe prescription opiates to patients. According to the nonprofit’s analysis, nearly all doctors who participated in the survey are “prescribing highly addictive opioid medicines for longer than the three-day period recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”

The National Safety Council, a non-profit organization founded in 1913, surveyed 201 certified family medicine and internal medicine physicians from March 5 to March 13. In addition to revealing violations of the three-day guideline, the survey found nearly a quarter of physicians prescribed opioid painkillers for a month or more, a dose that has been shown to cause physical changes in the brain.

The analysis also showed doctors do not just overprescribe opiates — they prescribe them incorrectly. As the NRC’s press release stated, “71 percent of doctors prescribe opioids for chronic back pain, and 55 percent prescribe them for dental pain – neither of which is appropriate in most cases.”

Similarly, “74 percent of doctors incorrectly believe morphine and oxycodone, both opioids, are the most effective ways to treat pain. Research shows over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen offer the most effective relief for acute pain.” Nevertheless, 87 percent of doctors surveyed reported prescribing opiates for acute pain of any kind. These high rates of prescription may be due, at least in part, to the fact that “67 percent of doctors are, in part, basing their prescribing decisions on patient expectations.” In other words, many doctors prescribe opiates simply because patients want them.

Though these figures are worrying, the survey also found doctors prescribe or recommend three painkillers more often than opiate painkillers: 98 percent suggest or prescribe NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), 95 percent of doctors promote acetaminophen (found in over-the-counter painkillers like Tylenol), and 92 percent opted to advise patients to use ibuprofen (like Advil). Eighty-six percent of doctors prescribe hydrocodone, 71 percent prescribe oxycodone, and 63 percent prescribe codeine, all of which are opiates, highlighting the pervasiveness of the legally-obtained drugs.

The survey also found that while 84 percent of doctors screen patients for prior addictions, only 32 percent screen patients for a history of addiction in their family, a factor NSC calls “a strong indicator of potential abuse.”

The survey’s findings support previous research conducted last year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which found four out of five new heroin addicts had previously abused prescription painkillers, meaning the willingness of doctors to supply pills to patients has undoubtedly contributed to the rise in addiction. In 2014, over 14,000 people died from prescription painkillers.

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