November 9, 2015

Prescription painkiller abuse: Empowering patients to ask questions


by Laura-Mae Baldwin, MD, MPH, Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Washington

The perils of prescription pain medications have been in the news lately. Your patients are rightly wondering what they need to know about the best way forward when they are prescribed an opioid medication.

Due in part to recent episodes on The Dr. Oz Show, and local opioid research leaders like Dr. Michael Von Korff at Group Health Research Institute, Dr. Caleb Banta-Green at the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, and Dr. Richard Deyo at Oregon Health and Science University, the word is getting out about this growing problem. More and more complications are emerging from the increasingly common practice of prescribing opioids long-term.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Use of prescription opioids has increased sharply since the 1980s. Excluding people with cancer and those in end-of-life care, about four percent of U.S. adults use prescription opioids for a period of several months or more (as of 2011). Pharmaceutical industry advocacy and education have fueled increased opioid prescribing for chronic non-cancer pain — despite limited scientific evidence supporting the drugs’ long-term effectiveness for chronic non-cancer pain.

Four things patients should know

A recent article on the American Academy of Family Physicians’ Leader Voices blog, president of the AAFP Dr. Wanda Filer notes four important questions your patients should know the answers to before they begin taking a prescription pain medication. As physicians and other clinicians, we should ensure patients in our care leave our practices equipped with the answers to these questions before taking opioids long-term:

  • What is the goal of taking this prescription?
  • How long should I take these drugs?
  • Are there any risks to me from these pills?
  • What do I do with extra pills?

I recommend you read Dr. Filer’s insightful article for more information. As with our blog, Implementing Innovations into Practice, the AAFP’s Leader Voices blog is another good resource for you to quickly catch up on important topics for your primary care practice.

Please encourage your primary care colleagues to introduce these conversations to patients taking opioids to manage pain. Helping your patients understand these four points before beginning a prescription opioid course will help you lead them to more successful outcomes. Together, we can do our part to help control prescription painkiller abuse.

Do you have a story to share about encouraging safe use of opioids? Let us know by emailing the Implementing Innovations into Practice blog editor.

This article originally appeared on The Institute of Translational Health Science’s blog Implementing Innovations into Practice.

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