The opioid prescription rates have significantly decreased for children, teens, and younger adults between 2006 and 2018, according to new research.
“What’s important about this new study is that it documented that these improvements were also occurring for children and young adults specifically,” said Kao-Ping Chua, MD, PhD, primary care physician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who was not involved in the study. “The reason that’s important is that changes in medical practice for adults aren’t always reflected in pediatrics.”
The study, published in, found that dispensed opioid prescriptions for this population have decreased by 15% annually since 2013. However, the study also examined specific prescribing variables, such as duration of opioid prescription and high-dosage prescriptions. Researchers found reduced rates of high-dosage and long-duration prescriptions for adolescents and younger adults. However, these types of prescription practices increased in children aged 0-5 years.
“I think [the findings are] promising, suggesting that opiate prescribing practices may be improving,” study author Madeline Renny, MD, pediatric emergency medicine doctor at New York University Langone Health, said in an interview. “But we did find that there were increases in the young children for the practice variables, which we didn’t expect. I think that was kind of one of the findings that we were a bit surprised about and want to explore further.”
Previous studies have linked prescription opioid use in children and teens to an increased risk of future opioid misuse. Astudy published in Pediatrics found that using prescribed opioids before the 12th grade is associated with a 33% increase in the risk of future opioid misuse by the age of 23. The study also found that for those with a low predicted risk of future opioid misuse, an opioid prescription increases the risk for misuse after high school threefold.
Furthermore, astudy published in JAMA Network Open found that, between 1999 and 2016, the annual estimated mortality rate for all children and adolescents from prescription and illicit opioid use rose 268.2%.
In the new study, Dr. Renny and colleagues examined data from 2006 to 2018 from IQVIA Longitudinal Prescription Data, which captured 74%-92% of U.S. retail outpatient opioid prescriptions dispensed to people up to the age of 24. Researchers also examined prescribing practice variables, which included opioid dispensing rates, average amount of opioid dispensed per prescription, duration of opioid prescription, high-dosage opioid prescription for individuals, and the rate in which extended-release or long-acting opioids are prescribed.
Researchers found that between 2006 and 2018, the total U.S. annual opioid prescriptions dispensed to patients younger than 25 years was highest in 2007 at 15,689,779 prescriptions, and since 2012 has steadily decreased to 6,705,478 in 2018.
“Our study did show that there were declines, but opioids remain readily dispensed,” Dr. Renny said. “And I think it’s good that rates have gone down, but I think opioids are still commonly dispensed to children and adolescents and young adults and all of our age groups.”
Dr. Chua said that the study was important, but when it came to younger children, it didn’t account for the fact that “the underlying population of patients who were getting opioids changed because it’s not the same group of children.”
“Maybe at the beginning there were more surgical patients who are getting shorter duration, lower dosage opioids,” he added. “Now some of those surgical exceptions kind of went away and who’s left in the population of people who get opioids is a sicker population.”
“Who are the 0 to 5-year-olds who are getting opioids now?” Dr. Chua asked. “Well, some of them are going to be cancer or surgical patients. If you think about it, over time their surgeons may be more judicious and they stop prescribing opioids for some things like circumcision or something like that. So that means that who’s left in the population of children who get opiate prescriptions are the cancer patients. Cancer patients’ opioid dosages are going to be higher because they have chronic pain.”
Dr. Chua said it is important to remember that the number of children who are affected by those high-risk prescriptions are lower because the overall number of opioid prescriptions has gone down. He added that the key piece of missing information is the absolute number of prescriptions that were high risk.
Researchers of the current study suggested that, because of the differences between pediatric and adult pain and indications for opioid prescribing, there should be national guidelines on general opioid prescribing for children and adolescents.
Experts did not disclose relevant financial relationships.