Older Americans Sorely Under-Informed About Opioid Risks

By Maggie Ethridge 09/05/18

A new poll uncovered a major lack of communication between doctors and their older patients who use opioids.

man holding a pill and a glass

A new poll from the University of Michigan involved a nationally representative sample of 2,000 Americans between ages 50 to 80. According to The Atlantic, the results of the poll were an indication of why elderly patients at high risk of opioid overdose: 40% said their doctors did not speak to them about opioids' side effects or how to decide when to cut back on the medication.

SAMHSA reports that the population of those 65 and older who are expected to use opioids will most likely double between 2004 and 2020.

The University of Michigan's National Poll on Healthy Aging asked the patients what their health-care providers discussed when prescribing opioid medication to them.

Of the responders, 589 said they had filled an opioid prescription. While they indicated that they knew how often to take the medication, the majority said their doctors or pharmacists did not address the risk of addiction, the risk of overdose, or what to do with excess pills.

Interestingly, the poll also showed that respondents overwhelmingly support policies that require providers to receive special training for opioid prescribing, as well as to review prescription records and requiring patients to disclose prior opioid medication.

The poll's respondents include baby boomers (which CNN defines as people born from 1946 to 1964). Sheila Vakharia, a policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Atlantic that this group “used alcohol and other drugs at higher rates compared to other generations of older people that have preceded them, which means these same people are at higher risk of overdose and adverse effects because they may be drinking a little bit more often and a little heavier than some folks who are in their 80s.”

Doctors can sometimes find it difficult to communicate effectively with their older patients for a variety of reasons. Many doctors are "burnt out" and simply don’t have enough time with each individual patient. In addition, doctors often don’t think patients of a certain age are at risk for addiction, Vakharia said.

“The messages that doctors give to patients are largely dictated by how they perceive patients,” Vakharia told The Atlantic. “You don’t often see the elderly as a population at risk for developing substance-use disorders.”

Indeed, older patients who use opioids are not only at risk for addiction, but they are at a higher risk of overdose death than the younger population.

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.