By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger
HEAL Blog posts frequently discuss the impact the opioid epidemic has upon the spread of HIV, Hepatitis B (HBV), and Hepatitis C (HCV). One aspect that we’ve discussed – prescribing habits – has recently received further study. According to new research published in Annals of Internal Medicine, 28.5% of opioid prescriptions have no record of either pain symptoms or pain-related conditions justifying their prescription (Scutti, 2018).
The study authors go out of their way to suggest that various causes may contribute to this lack of justification – failure to submit documentation, time constraints, clinic workflows, or complicated documentation systems (Scutti). In recent decades, doctors and nurses, alike, have complained about the complicated and seemingly never-ending amount of paperwork involved in providing even the most basic of care. Much of this is related to the Electronic Medical Record (E.M.R.) – software programs that are designed to account for virtually everything that can, does, or should occur with a patient. Recent studies indicate that doctors spend a little more than half of their work hours doing administrative work, rather than in face-to-face time with patients (Ofri, 2017).
Essentially, any time an insurer, new law, regulation, or threat of legal action appears, new field (or more) pops up in E.M.R. software that requires input on behalf of the doctor. So, realistically, it is possible that the justifications for at least some of the 28.5% of unjustified opioid prescriptions could just have been lost in the shuffle. Doctors are, after all, only human. Very well-trained, highly educated humans, but humans, nonetheless.
The other side of this argument, however, is that “doctors are human.” Doctors, like every human, are susceptible to poor influences – deals made with pharmaceutical companies to prescribe certain medications that highly addictive in lieu of other medications, for example. Or addiction; manipulation by patients; under the table dealing. At least once a week, I read an article about a doctor whose license is being suspended or revoked because they’ve been illicitly prescribing opioids or other narcotics in exchange for [x], or they’ve been selling them on the side. But, even those instances can’t account for all of 28.5%.
Yet another angle is that these drugs have become increasingly regulated since 2006 (the scope of the Annals study is 2006-2015). Since 2015, even more restrictions have been placed upon opioid prescribing, and in most states, this has resulted in dramatic decreases in the number of prescription per capita. In 2017, the opioid prescribing rate had fallen to the lowest it had been in 10 years (Centers for Disease Control and Prevent, 2017). But, even that comes with additional problems: patients turning to “street” sources for prescription opioids; patients moving off of opioids to heroin (often cut with fentanyl or carfentanil), because heroin is easier and cheaper to obtain; the resultant overdoses and increased risk of infection with HIV, HBV, and HCV.
There is no single solution to curbing the opioid epidemic. Doing so is going to require multiple approaches working in conjunction to defeat the problems. Outside of just prescriber education about opioid addiction and increase prescribing restrictions, we must also include and incorporate patient-focused harm reduction measures, such as increasing access to legal Syringe Services Programs (needle exchanges that also provide screening and testing for diseases and linkage to treatment programs for disease and addiction) and increasing access to addiction treatment programs by expanding the number of available beds.
For far too long, we have attempted to deal with these problems with siloed responses – just syringe exchanges; just prescribing restrictions; just prescriber education. This strategy is not working, and moreover, it is more expensive, in the long-run, to continue funding multiple single-focus initiatives that don’t work in tandem with one another, than it would be bring all of these resources and initiatives into one large effort. But, that will require cooperation and a lot of money up front; it’s far more palatable to fund smaller, less effective initiatives because the “ask” is lower on up-front costs. Realistically, though, it needs to be done.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevent. (2017, July 31). U.S. Opioid Prescribing Rate Maps. Atlanta, GA: United States Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control: Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention: Drug Overdose: Opioid Overdose: Data. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/maps/rxrate-maps.html
- Ofri, D. (2017, November 14). The Patients vs. Paperwork Problem for Doctors. New York, NY: The New York Times: Well: Live. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/14/well/live/the-patients-vs-paperwork-problem-for-doctors.html
- Scutti, S. (2018, September 10). Nearly 30% of all opioid prescriptions lack medical explanation. Atlanta, GA: CNN: Health. Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/10/health/opioid-prescribing-study/index.html?utm_campaign=KHN%3A%20First%20Edition&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=65822677&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_f5_Xw0_BiM3AuYz7WWvc9EVPnvSMhbH12lD0uDwQosSJNjev1SC0y3YcuE1Fa0fsf29i82K3ycZxTNWJN8CNsyx669A&_hsmi=65822677
Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.