Risk of Overdose Rising for Rx Painkillers

Patients taking higher doses of opioids face an increased risk of overdose, according to a recent study. Through targeted patient education initiatives, pharmacists can help reduce that risk.

Patients who take prescription painkillers may be in need of additional counseling from pharmacists, according to a recent study. The report, published in the January issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that risk of overdose from opioids has increased as doctors prescribe them more frequently to treat chronic pain.

Researchers from the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, Washington reviewed the prescription histories of 9940 adults who received 3 or more opioid prescriptions within 3 months between 1997 and 2005. Participants in the study were prescribed the drugs to treat chronic pain that was not caused by cancer.

The investigation revealed a total of 51 overdoses, 6 of them fatal. Patients who received lower doses, defined by the study as 1 to 20 mg daily, were less likely to overdose than those receiving higher doses of 100 mg daily or more. Risk of overdose also increased in patients who were depressed, had a history of substance abuse, or were taking sleeping pills or other sedatives, according to a report by HealthDay.

An examination of medical records showed that causes of overdose varied among the patients studied. Some overdoses were accidental, while others were suicide attempts or the result of combining prescribed opioids with additional painkillers received from sources other than a physician.

The authors of the study concluded that patients who are prescribed higher doses should be closely monitored by health care providers. In an editorial published with the study, A. Thomas McLellan, who is the deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, also called for greater patient education on the subject.

McLellan stressed the need to increase awareness of the potential side effects and risks of opiates, without limiting availability of the drugs for patients who truly need them. By educating patients in the proper use of opioids, pharmacists can play a vital role in this effort.