Doctor prescribing habits may determine long-term opioid use risk, study finds

by Jim Orr

The risk for patients of long-term opioid use may come down to the prescribing habits of their hospital emergency room physician, according to a new study by researchers at Harvard University. Researchers say that luck – rather than the medical condition of the patient – may be the biggest factor in whether patients undergo extended treatment with prescription painkillers, increasing their risk of abuse or addiction.

According to the study, patients who are treated by a high opioid-prescribing doctor are three times more likely to receive prescription painkillers than those who see physicians on the low end of the opioid-prescribing spectrum. The study found that patients who received larger doses of opioids on their first visit were also more likely to use the drugs for an extended period.

Patients who are treated by an ER doctor who prescribes opioid medications more frequently are approximately 30% more likely to take opioids for six months or more over the preceding year. The study found that about one out of every 48 patients who were prescribed opioids became a long term users of these medications.

Researchers also found that there were significant differences in how ER physicians prescribed opioids, even between doctors at the same hospital. Some “high-intensity prescribers” treated patients with opioids on about 24% of patient visits. By contrast, “low-intensity prescribers” only issued opioids prescriptions on about 7% of visits.

Although not all patients who were prescribed opioids for long-term treatment abused these drugs or became addicted, long-term treatment increases the risk that patients may become dependent on prescription painkillers. The CDC and other health organizations recommend that patients who are prescribed opioids should be treated with these drugs for the shortest possible time in order to reduce the risk of abuse, addiction, and overdose.

The study’s researchers say that their findings show the need for better guidelines for physicians on how to safely prescribe common opioid medications such as morphine, oxycodone, codeine, and fentanyl. Because there are no commonly agreed upon standards as to how these drugs should be described, the authors say that doctors are left to use their own judgement, placing patients’ health outcomes in the hands of whether doctors are high- or low-intensity opioid prescribers.

Overdoses Caused by the U.S. Opioid Crisis

Recent studies have confirmed the link between long-term opioid use and addiction. According to a 2016 study by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, one-third of Americans who were treated with opioids for two months or longer say that they became addicted to or dependent on these medications.

Opioid overprescription has been cited as a major factor in the epidemic of opioid abuse that has grown in the U.S. over the last two decades. Since 2000, opioid overdose deaths in this country have quadrupled. More than 180,000 patients in the U.S. have died since then as a result of opioid overdoses from drugs such as fentanyl, hydrocodone, methadone, or oxycodone.

Lawsuits Filed on Behalf of Opioid Overdose Victims

If you or a loved one have suffered an overdose caused by opioid painkillers, the doctor or hospital who prescribed these drugs may be at fault. Many doctors and hospital prescribe opioids to their patients in high doses or for an extended period, place them at risk of complications from abuse or addiction linked to these drugs.

The aggressive promotion of opioid medications by the pharmaceutical industry has also played a role in the U.S. opioid epidemic. Physician training programs and other campaigns created by the opioid industry have helped to “educate” doctors to prescribe these drugs, helping to fuel the increased use of opioid medications for moderate pain conditions.

The lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson have filed numerous lawsuits on behalf of opioid overdose victims and their families. Our law firm has handled more cases involving the fentanyl pain patch than all other law firms in the U.S. – combined. Heygood, Orr & Pearson is committed to helping patients and their families who have been harmed by prescription painkillers or the indiscriminate opioid prescribing practices of many doctors.

For more information about filing an opioid overdose lawsuit and to find out whether you may qualify to file a case, contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001. You can also reach us by following the link to our free case evaluation form and answering a few brief questions to get started.

by Jim Orr

Jim Orr is a licensed attorney and a partner at HO&P focusing on business and personal injury litigation. Jim was selected multiple times to the Super Lawyers List and has tried 70+ cases to verdict.