Article Date: 05 Aug 2011 - 0:00 PDT
" Fatal overdoses involving prescribed opioids tripled in the United States between 1999 and 2006, climbing to almost 14,000 deaths annually - more than cocaine and heroin overdoses combined. Hospitalizations and emergency room visits related to prescription opioid pain medicines such as oxycodone (brand name Oxycontin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin) also increased dramatically in the same period.
Now a report in the August issue of Health Affairs describes a major initiative at Group Health to make opioid prescribing safer while improving care for patients with chronic pain. Health Affairs is the nation's premier health policy journal, and its August issue focuses on substance abuse.
In the Group Health initiative's first nine months, clinicians at the Seattle-based integrated health system developed and documented care plans for almost 6,000 patients - 85 percent of those receiving long-term opioid therapy for chronic non-cancer pain.
Group Health's initiative was implemented well before the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Drug Enforcement Administration announced a national action plan in April 2011 to stem the epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Scientists from Group Health Research Institute are evaluating the initiative's effects on care, hoping Group Health's experience can help guide national efforts.
Use of prescription opioids has increased sharply since the 1980s. Excluding people with cancer and those in end-of-life care, about 4 percent of U.S. adults now use prescription opioids long term. Pharmaceutical industry advocacy and education have fueled increased opioid prescribing for chronic non-cancer pain - despite limited scientific evidence supporting the drugs' long-term effectiveness for chronic non-cancer pain.
In January 2010, Group Health Research Institute Senior Investigator Michael Von Korff, ScD, and colleagues published the first-ever study on overdose risk by dose among patients receiving prescribed opioids for chronic non-cancer pain. That study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, linked higher risk of fatal and nonfatal overdose to higher daily dose prescribed. His research also showed that Group Health, like other health systems nationwide, had been prescribing more opioids for chronic non-cancer pain over time - a twofold increase from 1997 to 2005.
Group Health launched a major primary care-based initiative to enhance opioid prescribing safety later in 2010. Led by Group Health Medical Director of Primary Care Claire Trescott, MD, the initiative aims to standardize use of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain, without creating undue restrictions on clinically appropriate opioid prescribing."