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Prescriptions for Narcotic Painkillers have Stabilized, Study Reports

Update Date: Mar 11, 2014 01:20 PM EDT

Even though a recent study discovered that doctors are prescribing more sedatives every year, a new study out of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found that the number of prescriptions written for narcotic painkillers, also known as opioids, has finally stabilized.

For this study, the researchers examined data collected by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System. The team looked at the quarterly data from 1999 through to 2008 on seven of the most commonly prescribed opioids, which included fentanyl, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, meperidine, methadone, morphine, and oxycodone. The researchers also examined data based on individual states and the District of Columbia.

The team found that overall from 1991 to 2010, the rate of painkillers that were being prescribed skyrocketed from around 76 million to nearly 210 million. The team also converted the data into morphine milligram equivalents (MMEs) within each state. Overall, they found that the yearly rates of MMes dispensed increased from 163 to 827 per capita from 1999 to 2008. After 2007, the researchers found that the increased rates appeared to have stabilized through to 2008.

The researchers then examined the effects of enforcing a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP). These programs are meant to combat the nation's prescription drug abuse problem, which has been a growing problem since the 1990s. Overall, they did not find a relationship between the state PDMPs and overall MMEs dispensed. However, when the researchers analyzed individual states, they did find that PDMPs implemented in nine states appeared to be tied to fewer MMEs dispensed. Eight states experienced the opposite relationship between implement PDMPs and MMEs.

"We found that PDMPs administered by state health departments appeared to be more effective than those administered by other government agencies, such as the bureau of narcotics and the board of pharmacy, " said senior author Guohua Li, MD, DrPH, Mailman School of Public Health professor of Epidemiology and director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention.

Joanne Brady, a PhD candidate in epidemiology, added according to the press release, "All age groups have been affected by the epidemic of prescription drug misuse, but the consequences of opioid analgesic misuse are particularly striking in adolescents and young adults. While state prescription drug monitoring programs have greatly expanded and rates of opioids dispensed are stabilizing, there exists considerable room to improve the overall effectiveness of state PDMPs, such as increasing interstate data sharing and making prescription drug-dispensing information accessible by healthcare providers in real time."

The study was published in Public Health Reports.

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