Archive for Opioid

Study: Doctors Reduced Opioid Prescriptions after Learning a Patient Overdosed

Study: Doctors Reduced Opioid Prescriptions after Learning a Patient Overdosed

Will clinicians become more careful in prescribing opioids if they are made of aware of the risks of these drugs first-hand? That was one of the core questions researchers set out to explore in a new study published in the August 2018 issue of Science. In doing so, they found that many clinicians do not learn of the deaths of those patients who overdose as they just disappear from their practice, outcomes unknown.

This disconnect from the personal experience of losing a patient due to fatal overdose, related to a prescription for opioids to relieve pain, makes the problem of the nation’s opioid crisis seem remote – statistics happening elsewhere. While the epidemic continues to exert its outsized impact, opioid prescription-writing levels have not responded with adequate risk-benefit analysis by prescribers tasked with caring for patients with complaints around pain.

“Clinicians may never know a patient they prescribed opioids to suffered a fatal overdose,” explained lead author Jason Doctor. “What we wanted to evaluate is whether closing that information gap will make them more judicious prescribers.” Doctor is the Director of Health Informatics at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics and Associate Professor at the Price School of Public Policy.

The study leverages behavioral insights and psychology to give prescribers personal experience with the risk associated with opioids and finds that when a clinician learns one of their patients had suffered a fatal overdose they reduced the number of opioids prescribed by almost 10 percent in the following three months.

Doctor and his colleagues conducted a randomized trial between July 2015 and June 2016 of 861 clinicians who had prescribed to 170 patients who subsequently suffered a fatal overdose involving prescription opioids. Half the clinicians, who all practiced in San Diego County, were randomly selected to receive a letter from the county medical examiner notifying them that a patient they had prescribed opioids to in the past twelve months had a fatal overdose. The letter, which was supportive in tone, also provided information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on safe prescribing guidelines, nudging clinicians toward better prescribing habits.

In the three months after receiving the letter, prescribing decreased by 9.7 percent compared to the control group who didn’t receive a letter. Furthermore, clinicians who received the letter were 7 percent less likely to start a new patient on opioids and less likely to prescribe higher doses.

The results are particularly exciting given that numerous, more traditional state regulations which often involve mandated limits on opioids have not been shown to have much impact. The authors point to numerous reasons why this study showed more promising results including its simplicity, that the letters still allows clinicians to decide when they will prescribe opioid analgesics and that it provides an important missing piece of clinical information to them.

This intervention is easily scalable nationwide as existing state and national resources already track the information necessary around overdose deaths associated with prescription and illicit drugs.

“Interventions that use behavioral insights to nudge clinicians to correct course are powerful, low-cost tools because they maintain the autonomy of the physician to ultimately decide the best course of care for their patient,” said Doctor. “In this case, we know opioids, though beneficial to some patients with certain conditions, come with high risks that the doctor may not fully grasp when observing patients in the clinic. Providing information about the harm that would otherwise go unseen by them gives physicians a clearer picture.”

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Co-authors include Andy Nguyen, Roneet Lev, Jonathan Lucas, Tara Knight, Henu Zhao, and Michael Menchine. Funding for the study was provided by the California Health Care Foundation and the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health (R21-AG057395-01).

The Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics, one of the nation’s leading health policy centers, aims to measurably improve value in health through evidence-based policy solutions, research and educational excellence, and private and public sector engagement. The Center is a unique collaboration between the USC School of Pharmacy and the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California (USC).

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Reducing Opioid Prescriptions for One Operation Can Have a Spillover Effect to Other Procedures

Reducing Opioid Prescriptions for One Operation Can Have a Spillover Effect to Other Procedures

Study results show revised recommendations resulted in about 17 fewer pills being dispensed per patient for four major operations.

CHICAGO – To curb the use of opioids after major elective operations and prevent these pain relievers from falling into the wrong hands, surgeons at the University of Michigan developed prescribing recommendations based on published medical evidence for one operation, gallbladder removal, and then discovered a spillover effect that led them to prescribe roughly 10,000 fewer pills for other major operations, according to study results appearing as an “article in press” on the website of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons ahead of print.

“We changed how many opioids we dispense or prescribe to patients after laparoscopic cholecystectomy, which is performed for gallbladder removal,” said lead study author Michael Englesbe, MD, FACS, a transplant surgeon in the department of surgery, University of Michigan Health System, Ann Arbor.  “As an unintended spillover consequence, the change had a significant impact on how we prescribe for other procedures.”

The study noted that surgeons have been known to overprescribe opioids after operations, resulting in leftover pills that can sometimes be diverted for illegal use. Dr. Englesbe and coauthors set out to determine if prescribing guidelines for one specific operation would have an impact on reducing opioids prescribed for other surgical procedures.

In a previous study, * Dr. Englesbe and coauthors described their recommendations for opioids after minimally invasive gallbladder removal: 15 tablets of hydrocodone/ acetaminophen 5/325 mg or 10 tablets of oxycodone 5 mg; along with encouraging the use of non-opioid pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.  They found that after implementing the recommendation, opioid prescriptions also declined significantly for four other types of major operations—thyroidectomy or parathyroidectomy (removal of all or part of the thyroid gland), and laparoscopic, or minimally invasive, appendectomy (surgical removal of the appendix), inguinal hernia repair, and sleeve gastrectomy (a weight-loss operation in which a portion of the stomach is removed).

The study involved reviews of 1,158 patient charts, 558 who had operations before the opioid recommendations were implemented and 600 over 10 months afterward to compare surgeons’ prescribing behavior.  For sleeve gastrectomy, the most extensive operation, the average prescription after surgery went from around 89 pills before the recommendations to around 58 afterward, about a 35 percent reduction.  The reductions for the other operations were more significant: about 43 percent for hernia repair (37 pills before to 21 after); and 50 percent or more for appendectomy (35 to 17 pills) and thyroidectomy/parathyroidectomy (16 to 8 pills).  The prescriptions were measured in oral morphine equivalents, with 100 OMEs equal to about 20 pills of hydrocodone/acetaminophen 5/325 mg.

Dr. Englesbe explained why the researchers chose these four operations:  “These procedures are not usually performed to treat pain, so there is an expectation that patients will have the procedure and essentially recover relatively quickly; and they are relatively straightforward elective operations that are commonly done across Michigan and throughout the United States.”

Despite the reduction in prescribing, patients requested refills after only minimally invasive appendectomy.  Prescriptions for non-opioid analgesics also increased significantly for two procedures.  For the four procedures across the entire study population, the revised recommendations resulted in roughly 10,000 fewer pills entering the community.  On average, that equals about 17 fewer pills per patient.

“These findings are relevant to any surgeon,” Dr. Englesbe said.  “Every surgeon, no matter what specialty or procedure they do, dentists included, needs to be thoughtful about how they prescribe opioids and be realistic that overprescribing can really have some devastating complications.”

Since the original recommendations for opioids after gallbladder removal, the Michigan Surgical Quality Collaborative and Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network have developed recommendations for 17 other procedures, including three types of hysterectomy, breast biopsy, and mastectomy.  The recommendations are reviewed quarterly and updated as needed, Dr. Englesbe said, and will soon include some dental procedures.  The recommendations are available at https://opioidprescribing.info.

“Some patients do not do well with opioids, and we as providers need to be very thoughtful while we give the best pain care possible but at the same time also make sure it’s the safest pain care,” Dr. Englesbe said.

Dr. Englesbe’s coauthors are Ryan Howard, MD, and Jay Lee, MD, of the department of surgery, Michigan Medicine, Ann Arbor; Mitchell Alameddine, BS, and Michael Klueh, BS, of the University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor; Chad Brummett, MD, of the department of anesthesia, University of Michigan Health System; and Jennifer Waljee, MD, MS, MPH, FACS, of the section of plastic surgery, department of surgery, University of Michigan Health System.

“FACS” designates that a surgeon is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

Citation: Spillover Effect of Evidence-Based Opioid Prescribing after Surgery. Journal of the American College of Surgeons. Available at: https://www.journalacs.org/article/S1072-7515(18)30436-8/fulltext.
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* Howard R, Waljee J, Brummett C, Englesbe M, Lee J.  Reduction in opioid prescribing through evidence-based prescribing guidelines.  JAMA Surg.  2018;153:285-287.

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What’s at Stake for Medical Professionals in “Pill Mill” Investigations

What’s at Stake for Medical Professionals in “Pill Mill” Investigations

In an earlier article, I detailed how the DOJ has focused its attention on the aggressive investigation and prosecution of “pill mill” cases.  In this article, I discuss the consequences physicians and other medical professionals potentially face as a result of a “pill mill” investigation.

CRIMINAL PROSECUTION

A litany of criminal charges can be heaped on medical professionals at the conclusion of a “pill mill” investigation. Exactly what charges the government pursues will obviously depend on the facts and circumstances of each particular case. One charge that will inevitably be included in every “pill mill” indictment is an alleged violation of the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”). The CSA governs the distribution and dispensing of various listed drugs, including narcotics, that are prescribed by physicians and other licensed medical providers. To issue a controlled substance, a physician must be licensed to practice by a state authority and must have a DEA registration number.

Under the CSA, controlled substances are placed into one of five “schedules” based on whether they have a currently accepted medical use in the United States, their relative abuse potential, and their likelihood of causing dependence when abused. Most opioids are Schedule II drugs because they have acceptable medical uses and but a high potential for abuse.

To be convicted under the CSA, the government must prove that (1) the defendant physician knowingly and intentionally distributed or dispensed a controlled substance, and (2) did so “for no legitimate medical purpose and outside the usual course of professional practice.” Determining whether a physician has illegally prescribed drugs under this standard is never simple and will necessarily involve a “battle of the experts.”

A criminal conviction for violating the CSA may result in a vast array of prison sentences under the federal Sentencing Guidelines, a set of advisory sentencing rules that establish a uniform policy for individuals convicted of felony crimes in federal court. The exact range may vary significantly from case-to-case, depending primarily on the type and quantity of controlled substances involved. And these ranges can be staggeringly severe. In a recent “pill mill” case in Mobile, Ala., the physicians each faced a guidelines range of imprisonment of 30 to 240 years, although the court sentenced them well below that range (20 and 21 years, respectively) – as it had the discretion to do. In addition to applicable guidelines ranges in each case, the CSA provides for statutorily “enhanced” sentences in certain circumstances. For instance, if the government proves that a patient’s death resulted from the distribution of a Schedule II controlled substance, the convicted physician will face a sentence of no less than 20 years and up to life in prison.

SEIZURE AND FORFEITURE

In almost every “pill mill” case, the government will attempt to seize (take possession of) and forfeit (take ownership of) bank accounts, business assets, and personal assets of the targeted medical professional based on a theory that they are “proceeds” of the alleged “pill mill” operation or somehow “facilitated” the purported criminal enterprise. For example, following the physicians’ convictions in the case mentioned above, the government forfeited their bank accounts, investment and retirement accounts, college fund accounts, houses, beach-fount condominiums, and 20-plus luxury automobiles.

CIVIL LIABILITY

On top of criminal prosecution, a “pill mill” investigation could result in a civil lawsuit by the government against the targeted physician or medical professional, to the extent they have billed a federal health care program. For instance, the government might bring a direct suit under the False Claims Act (“FCA”), alleging that the physician made false diagnoses, prescribed drugs for non-covered indications, or prescribed excessive or “medically unnecessary” drugs for Medicare or Medicaid patients. Likewise, the government may join in a “qui tam” suit, which is initiated by a “whistleblower” – such as a current or former employee of the practice – claiming the targeted physician or practice has violated the FCA and other laws.

ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

In addition to facing criminal prosecution, the loss of asserts, and civil liability, physicians investigated or charged in a “pill mill” case can be subject to a number of administrative sanctions. The DEA, in particular, has a range of administrative actions it can take, such as: issuing a letter of admonition to the registrant providing notice of a violation of the applicable law/regulations; requiring the registrant to enter into a memorandum of understanding agreeing to take certain corrective steps to stave off revocation of the registration; or, for the most serious alleged violations, pursuing a show cause order to appear before an administrative law judge, during which the DEA will advocate for revocation of the registration.

Like the DEA, state professional boards (such as medical and pharmacy boards) have disciplinary authority and can sanction practitioners for professional violations, such prohibiting a physician from prescribing specific schedules of drugs, suspending a physician’s medical and/or dispensing license, or revoking the license.

Further, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) may limit, suspend, or revoke a provider’s Medicare billing privileges for, among other things, noncompliance with Medicare enrolment requirements, a felony conviction related to controlled substances, or a pattern of improper prescribing practices. Likewise, state Medicaid agencies can impose various administrative sanctions against providers, including outright exclusion from the program.

CONCLUSION

The consequences physicians and other medical professionals face as a result of a “pill mill” investigation are varied and potentially severe. Given that, pain management practitioners should be acutely aware of any signs that they are under investigation, including, among other things, receiving a government subpoena or civil investigative demand or learning that the practice’s employees or patients have been interviewed by investigating agents. Upon receiving the slightest hint of an investigation, practitioners should act quickly in obtaining legal counsel to conduct an internal investigation, determine the practice’s potential exposure, and intervene on the practice’s behalf in the hopes of warding off further government scrutiny.

Adam W. Overstreet is counsel in Burr & Forman’s Birmingham office, practicing in the firm’s health care section, and is a former Assistant United States Attorney. Burr & Forman is an official partner with the Medical Association.

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AMA Rep Discusses Partnership with Medical Association during Opioid Council Meeting

AMA Rep Discusses Partnership with Medical Association during Opioid Council Meeting

MONTGOMERY ─ Earlier this week, the Governor’s Opioid Overdose and Addiction Council met to discuss reports from various stakeholders and committees, but there was also a special guest speaker. Daniel Blaney-Koen, senior legislative attorney from the American Medical Association, joined the task force to discuss what the AMA is doing nationally with policy interventions to try and reverse the opioid epidemic as well as its partnership with the Medical Association with the development and promotion of a toolkit to provide more educational material to Alabama’s physicians.

According to Blaney-Koen, opioid prescriptions are decreasing nationwide, and Alabama has beaten the national average in reducing the number of opioids prescribed.

“We want to emphasize solutions,” Blaney-Koen said. “I’d rather emphasize solutions that can change the course of this epidemic. We all want this epidemic to end, and there is hope for optimism that it will. The unmet needs for treatment are what will sustain this epidemic, so evidence-based care and treatment is where we need to put our focus.”

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Special Report: Physician Leadership is Boosting War on Opioids

Special Report: Physician Leadership is Boosting War on Opioids

MONTGOMERY – According to a new report by the American Medical Association, physicians have taken the lead in the nation’s battle on opioids by lowering the number of opioid prescriptions they write, making better use of state prescription drug monitoring programs, becoming better trained and certified in the use of opioid use disorders, and in access to naloxone.

“Everyone can agree there is no quick fix to the country’s opioid epidemic. In Alabama, our physicians took a leadership role many years ago by taking a hard look at where we were and where we needed to be,” said Mark Jackson, executive director of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. “As an association, we created the first educational program to train our physicians, and we passed legislation to reduce prescription drug abuse and diversion. Our Smart & Safe Alabama Program continues to be the only prescription drug awareness program in Alabama created and maintained by physicians. Even though Alabama has come a long way in the fight against opioids, we have a long way yet to go.”

According to the progress report, although physician leadership is helping to reverse the opioid epidemic, more than 115 people in the United States die from an opioid-related overdose every day. Physicians and medical specialty groups are continuing in a concerted effort to expand access to quality care for pain and substance use disorders in an attempt to quell the epidemic.

The report also found:

  • Opioid prescribing decreased for the fifth year in a row. Physicians have decreased opioid prescriptions nationwide for the fifth year in a row. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of opioid prescriptions decreased by more than 55 million — a 22.2 percent decrease nationally. During that time, Alabama beat the national average by decreasing opioid prescriptions by 23.3 percent.
  • Physicians are enhancing their education. In 2017, nearly 550,000 physicians and other health care professionals took continuing medical education classes and other education and training in pain management, substance use disorders and related areas. Many of these resources are offered by the AMA, state, and specialty societies, and more than 350 of these resources can be found on the AMA opioid microsite, end-opioid-epidemic.org. The Medical Association was one of the first states to offer an opioid prescribing education course in the country in 2009. The main course is offered three times each year and has reached more than 5,000 prescribers to date.
  • Access to naloxone is on the rise. Naloxone prescriptions more than doubled in 2017, from about 3,500 to 8,000 naloxone prescriptions dispensed weekly. So far in 2018, that upward trend has continued; as of April, 11,600 naloxone prescriptions are dispensed weekly – the highest rate on record. In 2016, the Medical Association helped pass legislation in Alabama authorizing the State Health Officer to sign a standing order to allow Alabama’s pharmacists to dispense naloxone to people in a position to assist others at risk of an overdose as well as to an individual at risk of experiencing an opiate-related overdose.

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FDA Classifies Kratom as Opioid

FDA Classifies Kratom as Opioid

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has officially classified the plant kratom, originally seen as an opioid alternative, as an opioid itself, stating that compounds in kratom act like prescription-strength opioids.

Found in Malaysia, the leaves of the kratom plant are traditionally crushed and made into a tea to treat pain as well as heroin or morphine dependence and possibly reduce withdrawal cravings. According to the American Kratom Association, there are 3 million to 5 million kratom users in the U.S. The supplement can be found in head shops and gas stations sold as powders, pills, capsules and energy drinks.

FDA scientists analyzed the chemical structures of the 25 most common compounds in kratom and concluded that all of the compounds share structural characteristics with controlled opioid compounds, such as morphine derivatives. They also found that compounds in kratom bind strongly to mu-opioid receptors, comparable to opioid drugs.

The scientific data and event reports have “clearly revealed” compounds in kratom make it “not just a plant — it’s an opioid,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., “and it’s an opioid that’s associated with novel risks because of the variability in how it’s being formulated, sold, and used recreationally and by those who are seeking to self-medicate for pain or who use kratom to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms.”

The FDA announced the voluntary destruction and recall of all kratom-based products manufactured nationwide under the brand names Botany Bay, Enhance Your Life and Divinity by Divinity Products Distribution. The FDA encourages all companies currently involved in the sale of products containing kratom intended for human consumption to take their products off the market and submit any necessary evidence to the FDA.

“The extensive scientific data we’ve evaluated about kratom provides conclusive evidence that compounds contained in kratom are opioids and are expected to have similar addictive effects as well as risks of abuse, overdose and, in some cases, death,” said Dr. Gottlieb. “To protect the public health, we’ll continue to affirm the risks associated with kratom, warn consumers against its use and take aggressive enforcement action against kratom-containing products.”

The FDA recommends consumers not use any kratom products and dispose of any products currently in their possession. “At this time, there’s no evidence to indicate that kratom is safe or effective for any medical use,” said Dr. Gottlieb.

The FDA has received 44 reports of deaths associated with the use of kratom. Additionally, the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are carefully monitoring an active nationwide outbreak across 20 states of a rare type of salmonella associated with kratom products.

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State of Alabama Files Lawsuit Against Purdue Pharma

State of Alabama Files Lawsuit Against Purdue Pharma

MONTGOMERY – The State of Alabama has joined other states in filing a complaint against opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma, LP, one of the largest opioid manufacturers in the country. The complaint alleges Purdue’s marketing of these drugs contributed to the creation of the opioid epidemic in Alabama.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a report by the Alabama Opioid Overdose and Addiction Council, appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey in mid-2017 to devise solutions to the state’s opioid crisis.

That report found at least 30,000 Alabama residents over the age of 17 are dependent on heroin or prescription painkillers. The council also found the drug overdose death rate in Alabama also increased 82 percent from 2006 to 2014. During that period, 5,128 people died from overdoses. In the U.S, more than 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016 involved opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lawsuit alleges that marketers persuaded physicians that prescription painkillers were not addictive, according to Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.

“The lies that they were told and trained in over the years whether it be that there was no dosage too high of an opioid … or even this concept of a pseudo-addiction that if somebody appeared in an office demonstrating signs of addiction that just meant that they needed more pain medication,” AG Marshall said.

Purdue denies the allegations, writing in a statement that its drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration and make up only 2 percent of all opioids prescribed.

Purdue Pharma manufactures, markets and sells prescription opioid pain medications, including the brand name drugs OxyContin, MS Contin, Dilaudid/Dilaudid HP, Butrans, Hysingla ER and Targiniq ER, as well as generic opioids. OxyContin constitutes roughly 30 percent of the entire market for analgesic drugs (painkillers). Purdue’s drugs compose a majority of the extended release market, for use with chronic non-cancer pain patients, which is the most dangerous method of use. Prescription opioids constitute the largest component of the opioid epidemic, both in quantity and damage caused.

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Alabama Opioid Overdose and Addiction Council Issues Formal Report

Alabama Opioid Overdose and Addiction Council Issues Formal Report

MONTGOMERY — Co-chairs of the Alabama Opioid Overdose and Addiction Council, Attorney General Steve Marshall, Commissioner Lynn Beshear of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, and Acting State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, announced the issuance of the Council’s formal report of its findings.

The Council was created in August 2017 by an executive order of Gov. Kay Ivey, and tasked with developing a strategic plan “that establishes recommendations for policy, regulatory and legislative actions to address the overdose crisis in Alabama.” The Council and its subcommittees have met several times since then, and have submitted its formal plan to the Governor.

“Families, health care professionals and government officials at every level seek real solutions concerning the impact the opioid crisis has on Alabamians,” said Commissioner Beshear. “The next step in our effort will convene the Implementation Team of the Alabama Opioid Overdose and Addiction Council, as well as quarterly meetings of the full council to implement researched opportunities. We believe the work of the council offers preventive strategies, intervention and treatment options, and a community response that addresses this dire need. Working together, it will require organized sustained engagement of citizens and government with healthcare professionals.”

Dr. Harris said, “Opioid addiction and abuse is a tremendous problem that affects Alabama in many different ways. Our hospitals, schools, churches and prisons are all struggling to deal with the problems caused by addiction and by increasing numbers of opioid deaths. The comprehensive action plan the council has developed includes improvements to the Alabama Prescription Drug Monitoring Program that make it easier for prescribers to identify opioid abuse and to motivate abusers to find help for themselves, their families and communities. We are encouraged that the council has offered strategies that have the potential to reverse this crisis that affects so many Alabamians, and appreciate the input of so many individuals to find effective solutions.”

“After working with the dedicated people who have given so much of their time and concern to this council and its subcommittees, I am heartened that we can make progress to fight the terrible blight of opioid abuse in Alabama,” Attorney General Marshall said. “I want to thank Gov. Ivey for bringing us together in a commitment to search for solutions and work toward implementing them. I have been proud to serve with Commissioner Beshear and Dr. Harris in this vital endeavor, and I am grateful to all the members of this Council and its subcommittees for their outstanding achievement in bringing forth these valuable recommendations.”

The Council’s report presents a four-pronged action plan to address prevention of opioid misuse, intervention within the law enforcement and justice systems, treatment of those with opioid use disorders, and community response that engages the people of Alabama in finding solutions at a local level.

Some of the major findings are summarized below:

PREVENTION

  • Improve and modernize the Alabama Prescription Drug Monitoring Program so that it will be more user-friendly, and more prescribers will participate and be better informed; the Governor is requested to support a legislative appropriation of $1.1 million to the Alabama Department of Public Health for this;
  • Strengthen prescription data and research capabilities and create a unique identifier for each individual patient;
  • Promote efforts to educate current and future prescribers, better implement current guidelines, adopt guidelines specific to opioid prescribing and impose mandatory opioid prescribing education;
  • Create a website and messaging campaign to reduce the stigma of opioid addiction; and implement an outreach program to teach young people the dangers and to avoid opioids;
  • Create a website and social media campaign to motivate opioid abusers to seek help and to effectively connect them and family members with ways to get help; and
  • Create a partnership for the Alabama Department of Mental Health to provide training about addiction to law enforcement agencies and the judiciary.

INTERVENTION

  • Advocate legislation in the 2018 session to specifically prohibit trafficking in fentanyl and carfentanil, which is particularly important because vastly smaller amounts of these than other opioids can be deadly; for example, a lethal dose of fentanyl is 1,000 times less than that of heroin, and the threshold amounts for the crimes of trafficking in fentanyl and carfentanil would better be measured in micrograms; and
  • As overdoses are 50 times greater for those leaving incarceration or other enforced abstinence, establish a process for the Department of Mental Health to reduce the stigma of medication-assisted treatment, and begin a pilot program by the Department of Corrections in partnership with the Board of Pardons and Paroles to use naloxone, counseling and life skills to help released inmates remain drug free.

TREATMENT AND RECOVERY

  • Promote adequate funding for treatment services and recovery support;
  • Establish collaboration between the Department of Mental Health and recovery support providers to increase access;
  • Support creating two addiction medicine fellowships to train Alabama physicians to recognize and treat substance abuse;
  • Expand access and target effective treatment and prevention programs to areas where there is greater need; and
  • Improve education of professionals through continuing education for licensing and expand postsecondary and graduate curriculums.

COMMUNITY RESPONSE

  • Increase access to naloxone, and maintain a list of participating pharmacies;
  • Prioritize naloxone to law enforcement and for distribution in areas of greatest need;
  • Provide naloxone training for first-responders;
  • Encourage prescribing naloxone for high-risk patients;
  • Have a Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America program in each judicial circuit and work toward having them at municipal levels;
  • Engage employers, businesses, higher education and private-sector in a network to get resources into communities;
  • Encourage having a Stepping Up Initiative in each county to work with the criminal justice system regarding incarceration of those with mental health problems; and
  • Develop ways to provide service to veterans regarding opioid issues.

A copy of the Council’s report is available for download here.

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New Research Shows Americans with Mental Illness use Opioids at Alarming Levels

New Research Shows Americans with Mental Illness use Opioids at Alarming Levels

More than half of all opioid medications distributed each year in the United States are prescribed to adults with mental illness — patients diagnosed with depression and anxiety — according to new research by Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the University of Michigan.

The study, published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, is among the first to show the extent to which the population of Americans with mental illness use opioids.

In the setting of the U.S. opioid crisis, the authors warn this connection between mental illness and opioid prescribing is particularly concerning because mental illness is also a prominent risk factor for overdose and other adverse opioid-related outcomes.

“Adults with mental health disorders were more than twice as likely to receive an opioid prescription,” said Dr. Brian Sites, an anesthesiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. This higher opioid use among those with mental illness persists across all key characteristics including cancer status and various levels of self-reported pain.

“Despite representing only 16 percent of the adult population, adults with mental health disorders receive more than half of all opioid prescriptions distributed each year in the United States,” said Matthew Davis of the University of Michigan, co-author of the study.

The study found among the 38.6 million Americans diagnosed with mental health disorders more than seven million (or 18 percent) are being prescribed opioids each year. In comparison, only 5 percent of adults without mental disorders are likely to use prescription opioids.

“Because of the vulnerable nature of patients with mental illness, such as their susceptibility for opioid dependency and abuse, this finding warrants urgent attention to determine if the risks associated with such prescribing are balanced with therapeutic benefits,” Sites warns. Sites noted because pain is a subjective phenomenon, “the presence of mental illness may influence the complex dynamic between patient, provider and health system that results in the decision to write an opioid prescription.”

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An Overlooked Epidemic: Older Americans Taking Too Many Unneeded Drugs

An Overlooked Epidemic: Older Americans Taking Too Many Unneeded Drugs

Consider it America’s other prescription drug epidemic.

For decades, experts have warned that older Americans are taking too many unnecessary drugs, often prescribed by multiple doctors, for dubious or unknown reasons. Researchers estimate that 25 percent of people ages 65 to 69 take at least five prescription drugs to treat chronic conditions, a figure that jumps to nearly 46 percent for those between 70 and 79. Doctors say it is not uncommon to encounter patients taking more than 20 drugs to treat acid reflux, heart disease, depression or insomnia or other disorders.

Unlike the overuse of opioid painkillers, the polypharmacy problem has attracted little attention, even though its hazards are well documented. But some doctors are working to reverse the trend.

At least 15 percent of seniors seeking care annually from doctors or hospitals have suffered a medication problem; in half of these cases, the problem is believed to be potentially preventable. Studies have linked polypharmacy to unnecessary death. Older patients, who have greater difficulty metabolizing medicines, are more likely to suffer dizziness, confusion and falls. And the side effects of drugs are frequently misinterpreted as a new problem, triggering more prescriptions, a process known as a prescribing cascade.

The glide path to overuse can be gradual: A patient taking a drug to lower blood pressure develops swollen ankles, so a doctor prescribes a diuretic. The diuretic causes a potassium deficiency, resulting in a medicine to treat low potassium. But that triggers nausea, which is treated with another drug, which causes confusion, which in turn is treated with more medication.

For many patients, problems arise when they are discharged from the hospital on a host of new medications, layered on top of old ones.

Alice Cave, who divides her time between Alexandria, Va., and Tucson, Ariz., discovered this when she traveled to Cheyenne, Wyo., after her 87-year-old aunt was sent home following treatment for a stroke in 2015.

Before her hospitalization, Cave said, her aunt, a retired telephone company employee whose vision is impaired by glaucoma, had been taking seven drugs per day. Five new ones were added in the hospital, Cave said.

“She came home and had a huge bag of pills, half of which she was already taking, plus pages and pages of instructions,” she said. Some were supposed to be taken with food, some on an empty stomach. Cave said she spent several hours sorting the medications into a giant blue pillbox. “It was crazy — and scary.”

Cave said she felt helpless to do much; her aunt’s doctors didn’t question the need for more drugs.

When Shannon Brownlee’s mother was taken to an emergency room recently to determine whether her arm pain might signal a heart attack (it didn’t) a cardiologist prescribed five new drugs — including an opioid — to the small dose of a diuretic she had been taking to control her blood pressure.

Brownlee, senior vice president of the Lown Institute, a Boston-based group that seeks to improve health care quality by reducing unnecessary treatment, said that when her brother questioned the necessity of so many new drugs for a woman in her late 80s, the specialist replied frostily, “I don’t see anything wrong with prescribing lots of medication to older people.”

Bring the Pill Bottles

“This problem has gotten worse because the average American is on a lot more medications than 15 years ago,” said cardiologist Rita Redberg, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

Studies bolster Redberg’s contention: A 2015 report found that the share of Americans of all ages who regularly took at least five prescription drugs nearly doubled between 2000 and 2012, from 8 percent to 15 percent. University of Michigan researchers recently reported that the percentage of people older than 65 taking at least three psychiatric drugs more than doubled in the nine years beginning in 2004. Nearly half of those taking the potent medications, which include antipsychotic drugs used to treat schizophrenia, had no mental health diagnosis.

Redberg and other doctors are trying to counter the blizzard of prescriptions through a grass-roots movement called “deprescribing” — systematically discontinuing medicines that are inappropriate, duplicative or unnecessary.

Interest in deprescribing, which was pioneered in Canada and Australia, is growing in the United States, bolstered by physician-led efforts, such as the five-year-old Choosing Wisely campaign. The Beers Criteria, a list of overused and potentially unsafe drugs for seniors first published in 1991, has been followed by other tools aimed at curbing unnecessary drug use.

“Lots of different medications get started for reasons that are never supported by evidence,” said Redberg, editor in chief of JAMA Internal Medicine. “In general, we like the idea of taking a pill” a lot better than non-drug measures, such as improved eating habits or exercise.

“That’s what we were taught as physicians: to prescribe drugs,” said Ranit Mishori, a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University and a proponent of deprescribing. “We are definitely not taught how to take people off meds.”

Kathryn McGrath, a Philadelphia geriatrician, said she tries to begin every appointment with a review of medications, which she asks patients to bring with them. “I think having the pill bottles” is much more powerful than a list, said McGrath, who has written about how to deprescribe safely.

Although support is growing, deprescribing faces formidable obstacles.

Among them, experts say, is a paucity of research about how best to do it, relentless advertising that encourages consumers to ask their doctors for new drugs, and a strong disinclination – baked into the culture of medicine — to countermand what another physician has ordered. Time constraints play a significant role. So do performance measures that are viewed as a mandate to prescribe drugs even when they make virtually no sense, such as giving statins to terminally ill patients.

A Reluctance to Overrule

“There’s a reluctance to tinker or change things too much,” said University of Michigan geriatric psychiatrist Donovan Maust, who labels the phenomenon “clinical inertia.” When inheriting a new patient, Maust said, doctors tend to assume that if a colleague prescribed a drug, there must be a good reason for it — even if they don’t know what it is. Maust said he tries to combat inertia by writing time-limited orders for medication.

He recently began treating a man in his 80s with dementia who was taking eight psychiatric drugs — each of which can cause significant side effects and most of which had been prescribed for undetermined reasons.

“It’s very typical to see a patient who has a few episodes of reflux and is then put on a [proton pump inhibitor, or PPI] and a few years later are still taking it,” said Georgetown’s Mishori. Many experts say the heartburn drugs are overprescribed, and studies have linked their long-term use to fractures, dementia and premature death.

“This is a cultural problem and an awareness problem exacerbated by the fragmentation of care,” said Brownlee, the author of “Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer.” Many doctors, she added, have never heard of deprescribing.

Before his death several years ago, doctors advised Brownlee’s father, a hospice patient, to continue taking a statin, along with several other medications. None would improve or extend his life, and all had potentially harmful side effects.

Rx: What For?

Older people taking lots of medication was what Canadian pharmacist Barbara Farrell encountered when she began working at a geriatric hospital in Ottawa nearly two decades ago. Her experience, she said, was a catalyst for the Canadian Deprescribing Network, a consortium of researchers, physicians, pharmacists and health advocates she co-founded. The group seeks to drastically reduce inappropriate medication use among Canadian seniors by 2020.

Farrell, a clinical scientist at the Bruyere Research Institute, has also helped write guidelines, used by doctors in the United States and other countries, to safely deprescribe certain classes of widely used drugs, including proton pump inhibitors and sedatives.

“I’ve found a lot of receptivity” to the guidelines among physicians, Farrell said. “We know there are pockets around Canada and the world where they’re being implemented.”

One of Farrell’s most memorable successes involved a woman in her late 70s who was using a wheelchair and was nearly comatose.

“She would literally slide out of her chair,” Farrell recalled. The woman was taking 27 drugs four times per day and had been diagnosed with dementia and a host of other ailments.

After reviewing her medications, Farrell and her colleagues were able to weed out duplicative and potentially harmful drugs and reduce the doses of others. A year later, the woman was “like a different person”: She was able to walk with a cane and live mostly independently, and she reported that her doctor said she did not have dementia after all.

When Farrell asked another patient why she was taking thyroid medication, the woman replied that her doctor had prescribed it for weight loss after her last pregnancy — in 1955.

“The patients I see are the tip of the iceberg,” Farrell said.

One way to facilitate deprescribing, Farrell said, is to require doctors to record why a drug is being prescribed, a proposal the deprescribing network has made to Canadian health officials. A recent study by a team from the Boston VA Healthcare System found strong support among doctors for this concept.

While some doctors are reluctant to discontinue medications, patients can be wary, too.

“They may say, ‘I tried stopping my sleeping pill and I couldn’t sleep the next night, so I figured I needed it,’” Farrell said. ” Nobody explained to them that rebound insomnia, which can occur after stopping sleeping pills, lasts three to five days.”

Mishori said that she deprescribes only one medication at a time so she can detect any problem that arises from that change. And, she adds, “I never take people off of a medication without doing something else.” In the case of heartburn drugs, she might first recommend taking the drug only when needed, not continuously. Or she might suggest a safer alternative, such as an over-the-counter antacid tablet.

Maust, the geriatric psychiatrist, recommends that doctors actively focus on “the big picture” and carefully weigh whether the benefits of a drug outweigh its risks.

“In geriatrics,” he said, “less is more.”

By Sandra G. BoodmanKHN’s coverage related to aging and improving the care of older adults is supported in part by The John A. Hartford Foundation.

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