For years now, the United States has been in the midst of an opioid epidemic – a public health crisis which has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and left millions more addicted to prescription painkillers.
A new report released last Thursday reflects the need for continued awareness and change. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of opioid prescriptions has decreased, but officials say it’s still higher than normal. The fact is that there are still too many patients receiving prescriptions, and doctors are giving their patients longer-lasting prescriptions, according to the study findings published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
“The bottom line is that too many are still getting too much for too long,” said the CDC’s acting director Anne Schuchat, “And that is driving our problem with drug overdoses and drug overdose deaths in the country.”
Drug overdoses are still the number one cause of accidental death in the country, responsible for taking the lives of more people than car accidents or gun violence.
The data for this report was gathered by CDC researchers who studied patterns of opioid prescribing throughout the country from 2006 to 2015, as well as how individual counties prescribed opiates from 2010 to 2015.
- The annual rate of opioid prescriptions written by doctors decreased 13% – from 81 prescriptions per 100 people to 71 prescriptions per 100 people.
- Overall, the report says, opioid prescriptions decreased by 18% from 2010 to 2015 in the U.S.
- Although the overall number of prescription decreased, the total amount in 2015 was three times higher than it was in 1999, and almost four times as high as the amount of opioid prescriptions distributed in Europe in 2015.
- As mentioned above, the report revealed that doctors increased the length of the dosage – specifically, from an average of 13 days in 2006 to 18 days in 2015.
Unfortunately, the risk for addiction and overdose is still extremely high. The length of the prescription can be especially dangerous, as the longer someone is exposed to these drugs, the higher their chances of getting addicted, says Schuchat.
The report also found that there are significant differences in how doctors are prescribing opioids from county to county. Although the counties with the most prescriptions can be found all over the U.S., there were a few noticeable similarities. The data showed that the counties with the highest rate of opioid prescriptions tend to be places that have a high number of white, non-Hispanic populations, as well as high rates of unemployment, lower level of education and larger number enrolled in Medicaid. The report revealed that these counties prescribed nearly six times as many opioids than those counties with the lowest rates of prescriptions.
That is enough prescriptions for “every American [to] be medicated around the clock for three weeks,” says Schuchat.
Both legal opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, and illegal ones like heroin and fentanyl, killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2015. Nearly half of those overdose deaths involved a prescription painkiller.
According to the CDC, nearly 2 million people in the U.S. are addicted to prescription opioids. Unfortunately, a large number of Americans are also turning to cheaper and more accessible opiates like heroin. If fact, 3 out of 4 new heroin users reported they began with prescription drugs.
- An increase in prescriptions for the treatment of chronic pain – the number quadrupled from 1999 to 2010.
- Doctors began over-prescribing medications to patients, without any real knowledge of the drugs’ addictive qualities, and without any proper prescribing guidelines.
- Patients who became dependent on these opiates began to doctor shop – visiting multiple doctors for multiple prescriptions.
The report also found that the areas with the highest rates of opioid prescriptions also have higher rates of arthritis, diabetes, and suicide. Unfortunately, many doctors adopted a prescribing method that aimed to alleviate their patients’ so-called “pain” without really questioning the person’s motives. With the advent of prescription drug monitoring programs, there is chance that we could see declining numbers of prescriptions over the next few years, however, it’s hard to tell when or if it will ever be enough to mend the damage that has already been done.