A new survey by the National Safety Council concludes 99 percent of doctors overprescribe prescription opiates to patients. According to the nonprofit’s analysis, nearly all doctors who participated in the survey are “prescribing highly addictive opioid medicines for longer than the three-day period recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”
The National Safety Council, a non-profit organization founded in 1913, surveyed 201 certified family medicine and internal medicine physicians from March 5 to March 13. In addition to revealing violations of the three-day guideline, the survey found nearly a quarter of physicians prescribed opioid painkillers for a month or more, a dose that has been shown to cause physical changes in the brain.
The analysis also showed doctors do not just overprescribe opiates — they prescribe them incorrectly. As the NRC’s press release stated, “71 percent of doctors prescribe opioids for chronic back pain, and 55 percent prescribe them for dental pain – neither of which is appropriate in most cases.”
Similarly, “74 percent of doctors incorrectly believe morphine and oxycodone, both opioids, are the most effective ways to treat pain. Research shows over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen offer the most effective relief for acute pain.” Nevertheless, 87 percent of doctors surveyed reported prescribing opiates for acute pain of any kind. These high rates of prescription may be due, at least in part, to the fact that “67 percent of doctors are, in part, basing their prescribing decisions on patient expectations.” In other words, many doctors prescribe opiates simply because patients want them.
Though these figures are worrying, the survey also found doctors prescribe or recommend three painkillers more often than opiate painkillers: 98 percent suggest or prescribe NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), 95 percent of doctors promote acetaminophen (found in over-the-counter painkillers like Tylenol), and 92 percent opted to advise patients to use ibuprofen (like Advil). Eighty-six percent of doctors prescribe hydrocodone, 71 percent prescribe oxycodone, and 63 percent prescribe codeine, all of which are opiates, highlighting the pervasiveness of the legally-obtained drugs.
The survey also found that while 84 percent of doctors screen patients for prior addictions, only 32 percent screen patients for a history of addiction in their family, a factor NSC calls “a strong indicator of potential abuse.”
The survey’s findings support previous research conducted last year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which found four out of five new heroin addicts had previously abused prescription painkillers, meaning the willingness of doctors to supply pills to patients has undoubtedly contributed to the rise in addiction. In 2014, over 14,000 people died from prescription painkillers.
As the NRC press release summarized:
“Drug overdoses have eclipsed car crashes as the leading cause of preventable death for American adults, with prescription opioids contributing to more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. The rise in overdoses has paralleled an increase in prescribing. Doctors prescribe enough opioids to give every American a bottle of pills.”
This phenomenon is arguably caused, at least in part, by the consistent flow of cash from pharmaceutical companies to doctors. For example, the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel reported that, in 2009, a panel for the American Geriatric Society established “new guidelines recommend[ing] that over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, be used rarely and that doctors instead consider prescribing opioids for all patients with moderate to severe pain.” Unsurprisingly, “since 2009, the American Geriatrics Society has received $344,000 in funding from opioid makers, according to records the group provided” to the publication. Since 2007, the Journal-Sentinel reported, the number of people over the age of 60 taking top-selling opioids increased 32 percent.
In a similar ‘coincidence,’ many vocal anti-marijuana medical professionals have been paid by painkiller companies. Marijuana is often used to treat pain from a variety of ailments, including fibromyalgia and Crohn’s disease. It has also been correlated with a reduction in opioid abuse.
Considering the complex web of responsibility for the thousands of deaths per year from prescription opiate overdose, it is difficult to assign blame to any one group — whether it be factions of the federal government, pharmaceutical corporations, doctors, or the individuals who become addicted to painkillers, themselves. However, the complicity and negligence on the part of doctors in the United States has been an increasingly undeniable catalyst for the explosion of addiction.
As Dr. Donald Teater, a medical advisor at the National Safety Council who conducted the survey, observed:
“Doctors are well-intentioned and want to help their patients, but these findings are further proof that we need more education and training if we want to treat pain most effectively.“
“Opioids do not kill pain; they kill people,” he cautioned.