Why Doctors Are Giving Out Fewer Prescriptions For Powerful Painkillers

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Amid a national opioid abuse epidemic, doctors have become increasingly reluctant to prescribe powerful painkillers, a new study has found.

According to the study, published in a recent issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, 9 out of 10 primary care physicians have expressed concern about opiod addiction. Nearly half of the doctors surveyed said they have cut back on the painkillers they prescribe.

“Our findings suggest that primary care providers have become aware of the scope of the prescription opioid crisis and are responding in ways that are important, including reducing their over-reliance on these medicines,” study leader Dr. G. Caleb Alexander, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a Hopkins news release.

Alexander added: “The health care community has long been part of the problem, and now they appear to be part of the solution to this complex epidemic.”

In the last two decades, prescriptions for painkillers nearly tripled as fatal overdoses of opioids reached epidemic levels, exceeding those for cocaine and heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every day, more than 100 people succumb to painkiller abuse, with the most common culprits being Oxycotin, Percocet, and Vicodin. The majority of these deaths occur in the Southwest and Appalachian regions of the United States.

More than 12 million people across the country say they use opioids for nonmedical reasons. Even with laws that restrict access to medication in place, 75 percent of prescription drug abusers attained their pills from someone else. Nearly one-third of Medicare patients often receive painkiller prescriptions from multiple doctors, increasing their risk of hospitalization. Even children have been affected by the opioid epidemic, with 9,000 emergency room visits among children under the age of six stemming from ingestion of a family member’s prescription medication.

Efforts to curb opioid abuse have aimed at holding regulators accountable and encouraging people to decrease their use of painkillers. Earlier this year, the Drug Enforcement Agency collected 390 tons of prescription as part of its drug-take-back program, events that allow people to relinquish unused medication and learn about the effects of drug abuse. In September, more than one dozen anti-addiction groups called for Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg’s resignation, citing the agency’s approval of powerful pain medications while she sits at the helm.

This study shows signs of a changing tide among a group that has historically enjoyed a profitable relationship with pharmaceutical companies. That’s why Dr. Caleb Alexander of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at Johns Hopkins University expressed his hope that physicians become compelled to explore less addictive, equally effective alternatives to prescription painkillers.

“There is no question that part of the problem and part of the contribution to the epidemic is the fact that so many prescription opioids are prescribed in clinical practice,” Alexander told CBS News. “Drugs like NSAIDS, acetaminophen and other strong pain relievers don’t have many of the same risks as opioids have.”