Study suggests half of opioids prescribed after surgery are unnecessary

One reason opioid addiction and overdose among patients recovering from surgery has increased in recent years may be a lack of standardization in physician prescribing practices. In a new study from DartmouthUniversity in Hanover, N.H., researchers examined more than 600 patients undergoing five common general surgery procedures and found wide variability in their opioid prescriptions.

When looking at the prescribing practices of individual providers, they also found wide variation in the median number of pills each typically prescribed, even for patients undergoing the same surgeries.

"Variation in the number of pills prescribed can be because of providers' perception that some patients are going to need more opioids than others (patient-centered variation) or it can be because of differences in the 'standard' number of pills prescribed for a particular operation by a provider," the authors of the Annals of Surgery study wrote. "Our data indicates that both of these mechanisms contribute to variation: the median number of pills prescribed by individual providers for a particular operation varied by a factor of 3 and most individual providers prescribed a wide range of pills for patients undergoing the same operation."

Additionally, the researchers report opioid pills are overprescribed in general for postoperative pain — more than 70 percent of prescribed medications were never taken. Experts cite leftover prescription medications that fall into the wrong hands as a significant driver in the opioid addiction crisis. They conclude incorporating findings related to widespread overprescription and variation into prescribing practices could both adequately treat postoperative pain and decrease the amount of leftover medications that could result in abuse and misuse.

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