Study: Friends and Relatives Share Painkillers, Fuel Opioid Epidemic

Authors suggest solutions

As lawmakers wrestle with how to fight the nation’s prescription painkiller abuse crisis, a recent survey has shed some light on how patients who receive these medications—including OxyContin, Vicodin, and methadone—sometimes share or mishandle them, according to an article posted on the Kaiser Health News website.

In a letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers reported that approximately one in five people who were prescribed highly addictive drugs had shared their meds with a friend, often to help the other person manage pain. Most people with a prescription either had or expected to have extra pills left after finishing treatment, and almost 50% didn’t know how to safely dispose of drugs left over after their treatment was complete, or how to store them while receiving treatment.

The results point to changes doctors could make in their prescribing practices and in counseling patients to help alleviate the problems, according to the study’s authors.

A survey was sent to a random sample of approximately 5,000 people in 2015. Of these recipients, about 1,000 had used prescription painkillers during the previous year. Almost all of the people in this group responded to the survey.

Public concern about painkiller abuse is growing. Approximately two million people were addicted to prescription opioids in 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that prescription-opioid overdoses kill 44 people each day.

It’s not news that most people who use prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons usually get them through social channels rather than physicians. In 2013, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that number to be more than 80%.

The new study’s findings illustrate some of the forces behind drug-sharing and how to stop it, according to co-author Dr. Colleen Barry of Johns Hopkins University. For example, the authors recommend that doctors prescribe smaller amounts of drugs to minimize leftovers that could be shared or stolen. That coincides with new opioid- prescribing guidelines issued by the CDC.

Moreover, it’s still difficult for people to dispose of opioid drugs when they finish with them, and few say they know about safe storage practices. That’s another avenue for prevention, Barry said. For instance, most respondents didn’t lock up the pills when storing them. That makes it easier for someone else to take them.

The prevalence of sharing medications suggests that consumers need to be better educated about how addictive prescription opioids are, Barry added. Doctors also need to understand the risk that, when they prescribe pills, the medications could end up being used by someone else.

Physicians haven’t historically been trained to counsel patients on safe drug disposal, meaning patients are often left unaware, the authors write. Just under 25% of respondents reported that they remembered learning from a doctor or nurse about how to dispose of their meds safely.

Sources: Kaiser Health News; June 13, 2016; and JAMA Internal Medicine; June 13, 2016.