Can Appropriate Prescribing Practices Curb the Opioid Crisis?
By Victor Lee, MD
Victor Lee, MD is VP of clinical informatics at Clinical Architecture of Carmel, IN.
According to a 2014 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the misuse and abuse of opioids is associated with a staggering number of emergency department visits, hospitalizations, overdose deaths, and many other adverse outcomes. Altarum estimates the economic impact from 2001 to 2017 to be more than $1 trillion, with a projected $500 billion of additional cost through 2020 at current rates. The White House Council of Economic Advisers estimates a burden of $504 billion in 2015, stating that prior estimates of the economic costs of the opioid crisis undervalue overdose fatalities. On October 26, 2017, The United States Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis to be a nationwide public health emergency.
There are efforts to combat the opioid crisis at many levels, including government (federal, state, and local), professional societies, health systems, health plans, academic institutions, and health IT vendors. Let’s look at a few selected recent events. The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis provides a multifaceted set of 56 recommendations across categories that address federal funding, prevention, and treatment of opioid addiction. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued a final rule which implements the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 and states, “a sponsor can limit at-risk beneficiaries’ access to coverage for frequently abused drugs beginning with the 2019 plan year. CMS will designate opioids and benzodiazepines as frequently abused drugs.” The Institute for Healthcare Improvement summarizes four main drivers to reduce opioid use, one of which is to limit the supply of opioids.
The Role of Opioid Prescribing as a Contributor
Why is it necessary to limit the supply of opioids? There is clear evidence that the prescription of opioids for pain management is a major driving force of the opioid crisis in the United States. A case-cohort study by Bohnert et al (2011) links higher opioid doses with opioid overdose death among US veterans. A retrospective cohort study by Brat et al (2018) shows that compared with opioid dosage, opioid prescription duration is even more strongly associated with misuse and overdose in a general surgery population. Findings from a series of structured interviews by Cicero et al (2017) reveal no qualitative differences in the onset and progression of opioid substance use disorder between medically treated patients and recreational opioid users. A review article by Compton et al (2016) provides further discussion of opioid prescriptions resulting in non-medical opioid and heroin use and cites numerous references.
Perhaps the most comprehensive review of risk factors for prescription drug misuse is provided in a 2017 publication by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In summary, the body of research on prescription opioids shows a consistent link with resultant substance use disorder. This suggests that the demand side of the opioid crisis is critically important to address.
A Potential Solution
Prescribers of opioid medications are in an excellent position to fight the opioid crisis. While there are numerous evidence-based guidelines, a reasonable starting point would be to follow the “CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain” for appropriately selected patients. Recognizing that other opioid prescribing guidelines exist, the CDC guidelines are most commonly referred to by numerous organizations as part of a multifaceted approach to mitigating the opioid crisis.
While guidelines, clinical trials, reviews, and other literature may be widely available, they are not always translated into practice when applicable. This is where clinical decision support (CDS) may help. Kawamoto et al (2005) systematically reviewed the literature and found that the automatic provision of CDS as part of clinician workflow is 112.1 times more likely to improve clinical practice as compared with control groups (P< 0.00001).
CDS can lower the barrier to adhering to certain CDC recommendations such as:
- Calculating morphine milligram equivalents (MME) dosages and justifying decisions to use ≥ 50 MME/day or ≥ 90 MME/day
- Identifying risk factors for opioid overdose and considering of naloxone as part of an opioid management plan
- Applying other prescribing best practices from the CDC’s 12 recommendations
We’re In This Together
While there are other ways to address the opioid crisis — such as national legislative / regulatory action, statewide technology implementation of prescription drug monitoring programs, and treatment of substance use disorder — there is also an opportunity to prevent opioid overutilization in the first place. If a bathtub is overflowing, the question is not whether to turn off the water, unplug the drain, or to mop up the water—the question is how to do all of these things in the most expedient way to address the problem.
Similarly, lawmakers, administrators, technologists, clinicians, and patients can work together to contribute their efforts in concert with one another to optimize pain management, minimize opioid overutilization, and to effectively treat substance use disorders.