Most people who misuse opioid pain relievers cite friends and relatives as their sources for the drugs, but more of the people who misuse these agents most often – those who take them from 200 to 365 days of the year – obtain their opioids from physicians’ prescriptions than from any other single source, according to a report published online March 3 in JAMA Internal Medicine.
"These results underscore the need for interventions targeting prescribing behaviors, in addition to those targeting medication sharing, selling, and diversion," the report’s authors warned.
It is a commonly cited statistic that most people who misuse opioid pain relievers obtain the drugs from family and friends for free, so many interventions to stop such misuse focus on patients. But few studies have examined whether the source of these drugs, and thus an appropriate target for interventions, might differ according to the frequency of misuse.
To study this issue, researchers analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual survey that provides information on drug use among U.S. residents aged 12 years and older.
Survey data from 2008 through 2011 identified 11,018,735 respondents who said they misused an opioid pain reliever either by obtaining the drug without a prescription or by getting a prescription but taking the drug strictly because of the feeling or experience it provided. The source of the drug differed according to the frequency of use: As the days of use increased, the likelihood that the user obtained the drug from a friend or family member decreased, and the likelihood that he or she obtained the drug from a physician rose, said Christopher M. Jones, Pharm.D., and his associates at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.
Among people who misused opioids only 1-29 days of the year, 54.4% said they got them from a friend or relative for free – the most popular source. In contrast, only 18% of this patient group said the opioids were prescribed by one or more physicians.
But the percentage of patients who obtained misused opioids through physician prescriptions steadily rose with increasing use.
Among those who misused the drugs 200-365 days a year, the top source was physician prescriptions, 27.3% of users, followed by opioids obtained for free from friends or relatives, 26.4%. A total of 23.2% of users said they bought their opioids from friends or relatives, while another 15% of frequent users bought their drugs from dealers or strangers.
"This pattern is similar to that of patients in opioid treatment programs, who cite dealers and physicians as frequent sources," Dr. Jones and his associates said in a Research Letter to the Editor (JAMA Intern. Med. 2014 March 3 [doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.12809]).
"Many abusers of opioid pain relievers are going directly to doctors for their drugs," CDC Director Tom Frieden commented in a statement. "Health care providers need to screen for abuse risk and prescribe judiciously by checking past records in state prescription drug monitoring programs. It’s time we stop the source and treat the troubled."
"The essential steps health care providers can take to curb this serious health problem include more judicious prescribing, use of prescription-drug–monitoring programs, and screening patients for abuse before prescribing opioids," the study authors noted.
The federal government is encouraging the development of abuse-deterrent opioid formulations, the CDC noted, and requiring companies that make extended-release and long-acting opioids to offer prescribers educational programs about the understanding the risks of opioid therapy; choosing, managing, and monitoring patients; and counseling patients on safe use of opioids.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supported the study. No financial conflicts of interest were reported.