28% of opioids prescribed in outpatient settings lack physician explanation, study finds

A record 809 million opioids were prescribed in outpatient settings between 2006-15, and one-third of the prescriptions lacked physician explanation, according to a study published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Here are three things to know:

1. Researchers from Boston-based Harvard Medical School and Rand Corp. analyzed data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, which is an annual cross-section survey given to insured and uninsured patients about their outpatient visits. The survey reports patient characteristics, prescribed medications and up to five provider-assigned diagnoses per each visit.

2. On average, the data did not indicate regular medical documentation or justification for prescribed opioids. Opioids were prescribed in 31, 943 visits with 5.1 percent of patients prescribed drugs after a cancer diagnosis and 66.4 percent were prescribed for a noncancer pain diagnosis. Only 2.2 percent of the prescribed opioids came with medical documentation.

3. For nearly 28.5 percent of patients receiving prescriptions had no record for either pain symptoms or pain-related conditions.


"If a doctor does not document a medical reason for prescribing an opioid, it could mean that the prescription is not clinically appropriate," lead author Tisamarie Sherry, MD, PhD, a physician at Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital and associate physician policy researcher at RAND, told CNN. "But it could also mean that the doctor simply missed recording the medical justification for an opioid, perhaps due to time constraints, clinic workflows or complicated documentation systems."

More articles on opioids: 

Most young adults don't receive timely medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorder, study finds

Physicians' poor addiction training makes healthcare's opioid battle like 'fighting World War II with only the Coast Guard'

Viewpoint: How drug exchange programs could save lives

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