Opioid prescribing in the United States declined overall between 2010 and 2015, but remained stable or increased in some counties, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The findings were published online in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
“The bottom line remains: We have too many people getting too many prescriptions at too high a dose,” Anne Schuchat, MD, acting director of the CDC, said in a July 6 teleconference.
Providers in the highest-prescribing counties prescribed six times more opioids per person than in the lowest-prescribing counties in 2015, she noted.
CDC researchers calculated prescribing rates from 2006 to 2015 by dividing the number of opioid prescriptions by the population estimates from the U.S. census for each year and created quartiles using morphine milligram equivalent per capita to analyze opioid distribution. Annual opioid prescribing rates increased from 72 to 81 prescriptions per 100 persons from 2006 to 2010 and remained relatively constant from 2010 to 2012 before showing a 13% decrease to 71 prescriptions per 100 persons from 2012 to 2015 (MMWR. 2017 Jul 7;66:697-704. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6626a4 ).
But despite these overall declines, “We are now experiencing the highest overdose death rates ever recorded in the United States,” Dr. Schuchat said. Quartiles were created using MME per capita to characterize the distribution of opioids prescribed.
In the report, areas associated with higher opioid prescribing rates on a county level included small cities or towns, areas that had a higher proportion of white residents, areas with more doctors and dentists, and areas with more cases of arthritis, diabetes, or other disabilities, she said.
The findings suggest a need for more consistency among health care providers about prescription opioids, Dr. Schuchat said. “Clinical practice is all over the place, which is a sign that you need better standards; we hope the 2016 guidelines are a turning point for better prescribing,” she said.
The CDC’s guidelines on opioid prescribing were released in 2016. The guidelines recommend alternatives when possible. Clinicians should instead consider nonopioid therapy, other types of pain medication, and nondrug pain relief options, such as physical therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Other concerns include the length and strength of opioid prescriptions. Even taking opioids for a few months increases the risk for addiction, Dr. Schuchat said.
“Physicians must continue to lead efforts to reverse the epidemic by using prescription drug–monitoring programs, eliminating stigma, prescribing the overdose reversal drug naloxone, and enhancing their education about safe opioid prescribing and effective pain management,” Patrice A. Harris, MD , chair of the American Medical Association Opioid Task Force , said in a statement in response to the report. “Our country must do more to provide evidence-based, comprehensive treatment for pain and for substance use disorders,” she said.
“We really encourage clinicians to look to the guidelines and the tools that are available,” Dr. Schuchat said. “We do know that internists and other primary care physicians prescribe most of the opioids, so it is important for them to be aware.” The CDC has developed a checklist and a mobile app that have been downloaded by thousands of clinicians so far, she noted. Changes in annual prescribing hold promise that practices can improve, she said.
The researchers reported no conflicts of interest.