Docs reduce opioid prescriptions, but pain patients suffer

When the government released strict new guidelines last March to limit prescribing of opioid painkillers, many doctors worried they would impede access to narcotic painkillers for patients who legitimately need them to treat chronic pain. A new survey suggests that is exactly what has happened.

More than half of physicians in the U.S. are writing fewer opioid prescriptions and nearly one in 10 have stopped prescribing the painkillers altogether, according to a survey conducted for The Boston Globe. However, more than one-third of the nearly 3,000 doctors who responded to the online survey said the cutback in prescribing has hurt patients with chronic pain, the newspaper reported.

The survey was conducted in December for the newspaper by SERMO, a physicians’ social network, to ask about changes in prescribing practices. Responding to the growing number of overdoses and deaths from opioids, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines last year advising physicians to prescribe treatments other than opioids for chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care and end-of-life care. Doctors had concerns that a backlash against opioid use would harm patients who need and benefit from opioid therapy.

Of those doctors who said they reduced or eliminated opioid prescribing in the past year or two, 34% said there were “too many hassles and risks” and 29% cited an improved understanding of opioid risks. The survey also found that nearly three-quarters of doctors said chronic pain patients have adequate access to treatments other than opioids.