Are Opioid Prescription Rates Actually Declining?

By Victoria Kim 08/08/18

Researchers examined 10 years of data to see if people were taking less opioids over time and if fewer people had opioid prescriptions. 

man looking at a chart on the decline

While individual states have reported declines in opioid prescription rates, this did not apply for all Americans, according to Mayo Clinic researchers.

After reviewing anonymous insurance claims data covering 48 million people between 2007 and 2016, the researchers concluded that “opioid prescription rates have remained flat for insured patients over the last 10 years,” as Forbes reported.

Specifically, disabled Medicare patients displayed the highest rates of use and the largest proportion of long-term use of prescription opioids.

More than 51% of disabled Medicare patients used prescription opioids, while this number was just 14% for privately insured patients and 26% of non-disabled Medicare patients used prescription opioids.

As lead author Molly Jeffery explained, even though integrative pain programs that use over-the-counter pain medication like Advil and Tylenol, alongside physical therapy, can be just as if not more effective than opioid painkillers for some patients, they tend to cost more than opioid painkillers alone, leading insurers to favor the cheaper option.

“We wanted to know how the declines were experienced by individual people,” said Jeffery. “Did fewer people have opioid prescriptions? Did people taking opioids take less over time? When we looked at it that way, we found a different picture.”

The Mayo Clinic is now prescribing fewer pain pills per patient, Jeffery said, trying to find a balance of giving “enough medication to relieve pain without raising the risk of addiction.”

Establishing prescription limits could reduce the risk of opioid overdose for some patients, the researchers said, “but that reduction in risk must be weighed against the burden to patients and their physicians.”

Former The Fix contributor, journalist and author Maia Szalavitz warned as early as 2012 of the consequences of a nationwide crackdown on pain medication. In her article “The Innocent Victims of America’s Painkiller Panic,” she offers a critique of opioid “policing”—which is not limited to prescription limits.

“There’s little evidence that such policing prevents addiction or does anything else beyond inconveniencing and stigmatizing pain patients,” Szalavitz wrote.

According to Ballotpedia, as of this past April, 28 states have established policies or guidelines that set limits on the supply of opioids that can be prescribed by doctors.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr