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ER Doctors Cautious When Prescribing Narcotic Painkillers: Study

They're dispensing lower number of pills, using meds that carry less overdose risk

MONDAY, May 4, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. emergency room doctors are cautious when prescribing narcotic painkillers that carry a high risk of abuse, a new study shows.

Researchers analyzed data collected from more than 27,000 patients seen at 19 emergency departments (EDs) across the United States during a single week in October 2012.

Nearly 12 percent of the patients were prescribed narcotic painkillers. Narcotic painkillers include drugs such as Oxycontin (oxycodone) and Vicodin (hydrocodone). The average age of the patients was 41 and slightly more than half were women, the investigators found.

Most of the prescriptions for the painkillers had a low number of pills and nearly all were immediate-release versions, not long-acting medications such as Oxycontin and MS-Contin, which carry a greater risk of overdose.

"Our data show that opioid [narcotic painkiller] prescribing in the ED is done with caution and aligned with short-term use goals," corresponding study author Dr. Scott Weiner, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said in a hospital news release.

"The median number of pills per prescription was 15, and only 1.5 percent of prescriptions were for more than 30 pills, suggesting that emergency physicians generally follow guideline recommendations to limit opioid prescriptions to only 3 to 5 days, and avoid long-acting opioids," Weiner added.

The most common reasons for prescribing the painkillers were back pain and abdominal pain (10 percent each), severe fracture (7 percent), sprain (6.5 percent) and dental/mouth pain (6.2 percent). Oxycodone and hydrocodone were the most commonly prescribed narcotic painkillers, the researchers found.

The study was published online May 4 in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Painkiller abuse and addiction is a major problem in the United States, the study authors pointed out.

"We hope that this study will add to the literature and inform policymakers about the actual scope of ED opioid prescribing, so that efforts to address addiction and reduce inappropriate prescribing can be accurately focused," Weiner said.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about painkillers.

SOURCE: Brigham and Women's Hospital, news release, May 4, 2015
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