How Widespread Is The Prescription Opioid Epidemic?

By Paul Gaita 09/18/17

A new study examined the demographic of prescription opioid users to determine the true reach of the epidemic.

prescription painkiller addiction epidemic concept as a group of people running away from a falling bridge of pills

Newly published research suggests that the prescription opioid epidemic may not be as widespread a problem among the general population as reported in the media. Rather, the study found that in 2013, 76% of all prescription opioids were filled by 10% of users, while 59% of such prescriptions went to just 5% of users.

Based on their findings, the Stanford researchers, who published the report in the Annals of Internal Medicine's September 2017 issue, opined that laws to regulate prescriptions should focus on that limited demographic in order to have the greatest impact on national rates of opioid use, rather than blanket legislation that could actually have a negative impact on some patients.

As reported in the Mercury News, the study authors, who were based at Stanford University, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, examined pharmacy data for the nearly 20 million patients without cancer and who had been enrolled in private insurance for at least one year between 2001 and 2013. The study subjects had also filled at least one opioid prescription, commonly administered orally—such as oxycodone or hydrocodone— during that time period. According to their findings, 69% of opioid prescriptions were written for just 10% of that demographic in 2001, and rose to 76% by 2013, while 55% of prescriptions went to 5% of users in that group in 2011, rising to 59% in 2013. 

The study authors did not give details for these patients aside from noting that they trended towards older males. According to study co-author Dr. Eric Sun of Stanford University Medical Center, these small groups "are the people we want to focus on."

According to Sun, focusing prescription limits on a broader demographic might not only miss an opportunity to have the greatest impact on opioid prescription use, but could actually hurt more users than help by restricting short-term access to opioids. "For most people, those policies are not all that useful," Sun suggested. "They affect everyone."

Sun and co-author Anupam B. Jena, MD, PhD of Harvard Medical School noted that more extensive research was necessary to formulate more effective means of reducing use, including "analyzing the incidence of opioid-related adverse effects," which they wrote were "most common at the highest MEQs (morphine equivalents)."

Studying levels of use among populations that were not included in the study, such as among Medicare recipients, was also suggested as an important factor for future research into this issue.

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