95% of Long-Term Prescription Opioid Users Were Introduced To Opioids By Their Doctors, Poll Reveals

By Paul Gaita 12/14/16

A recent WaPo poll further highlights the role that doctors have played in the opioid epidemic. 

Doctor holding pill.

As statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that prescription opioids continue to claim more lives each year—more than 17,000 people died from prescription opioids in 2015, a figure up 4% from 2014—a new poll shows that one-third of all Americans who have taken prescription opioids for a period of more than two months describe themselves as addicted to those drugs.

Nearly all of the respondents to the poll said they were introduced to the opioids through a doctor's prescription, but more than half stated that they received no advice on how to step down or stop using the medication.

The poll, a joint effort between the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, interviewed more than 600 people who said they had taken a narcotic painkiller prescribed by a doctor for at least two months over the past two years.

Also included in the survey were 187 people who stated that they were currently living with an opioid user, typically a spouse or parent; not included were individuals who were taking prescription opioids for cancer or a terminal illness. At the time of the interview, more than half (55%) said they were still using the drugs, while 45% were no longer taking them.

Of those who stated that they were long-term users, 95% said they started taking prescription opioids after surgery, an injury or a diagnosis of a chronic condition, while 3% said that they had started using for recreational purposes. The majority of respondents tried to manage the pain with alternative methods, either by non-narcotic medication (8 in 10) or treatments like acupuncture or physical therapy (7 in 10). However, more than half of those respondents (57%) reported that those methods had not relieved their pain.

Beyond that, most respondents stated that their doctors offered relatively little advice to patients: 65% said their doctors discussed the possibility that they could become dependent on the medication, while just 33% said that some kind of plan to get off the medication was addressed. Another 34% reported that the reason they stopped taking opioids was not their choice, but rather because their prescriptions ran out or were terminated.

Gary Mendell, founder of Shatterproof, an organization devoted to reducing addiction in the United States, found the statistics regarding doctor involvement in long-term use appalling. "It's unbelievable that it's not 100%" of doctors counseling patients on getting off of opioids, he said.

Patrice A. Harris, chairperson of the American Medical Association's Board of Trustees, acknowledged that greater involvement by doctors is necessary. "The doctors that I have talked to are discussing this with their patients," she said, adding, "We could certainly do a better job."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.