New Survey Finds One in Five Patients Shares Unused Opioids

Fewer than 7% return unused medications

In the midst of an epidemic of prescription painkiller addiction and overdose deaths, a new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health survey suggests that more than half of patients prescribed opioids have leftover pills––and many save them to use later.

For the study, the researchers constructed a national sample of 1,032 U.S. adults who had used prescription painkillers during the previous year. The survey was fielded in February and March 2015. Among those who were no longer using prescription pain relievers at the time of the survey (592 respondents), 60.6% reported having leftover pills, and 61.3% of those with leftover pills said they had kept them for future use rather than disposing of them.

Study leader Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, PhD, said that physicians should, when prescribing opioids, discuss the inappropriateness of sharing and how to safely store and dispose of them.

“We don’t make it easy for people to get rid of these medications,” she said. “We need to do a better job so that we can reduce the risks not only to patients but to their family members.”

The researchers, reporting in JAMA Internal Medicine, also found that one in five respondents had shared their opioid medications with another person, with a large number saying they gave them to someone who needed them for pain. Nearly 14% said they were likely to share their prescription painkillers with a family member in the future, and nearly 8% said they would share with a close friend.

Nearly half of those surveyed reported receiving no information on how to safely store their medications, either to keep them from young children who could accidentally ingest them or from adolescents or other adults looking to get high; nor were they given information on how to safely dispose of their medications. Fewer than 7% of people with extra pills reported taking advantage of “take back” programs that enable patients to turn in unused pain medications to pharmacies, police departments, or the Drug Enforcement Administration for disposal.

Fewer than 10% said they kept their opioid pain medications in a locked location. In addition, fewer than 10% reported throwing leftover medications out in the trash after mixing them with something inedible, like used coffee grounds––a safe method for disposing of medications.

During the past decade, there has been a sharp increase in the rates of prescription painkiller addiction and overdose deaths. Drug overdoses––the majority of which involve opioid pain relievers––were the leading cause of injury death in 2014 among people between 25 and 64 years of age, and drug overdose has surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of injury death in this age group.

In March 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged doctors to avoid prescribing powerful opioid painkillers for patients with chronic pain, saying the risks from such drugs outweigh the benefits for most people. Prolonged use of these medications can lead to addiction, putting people at much higher risk for overdose and increasing the risk of heroin use because it is cheaper, worsening the heroin epidemic.

Sources: Bloomberg School of Public Health; June 13, 2016; and JAMA Internal Medicine; June 13, 2016.