Steps to Prevent Errors with Opioid Prescriptions

Once prescribed, patients are in danger of becoming addicted to opioids. What can be done to curb abuses of these prescribed painkillers?

Errors with medication are a common serious medical mistake.  However, any errors prescribing or administering opioids are especially concerning, as the powerful painkiller has become a fast growing cause of death in this country.  Estimates range from 40 to 90 people per day die in this country from an opioid overdose.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of U.S. opioid prescriptions has increased four-fold since 1999, while the amount of overall reported pain has stayed the same.  From 1999 to 2011, the number of patients who died from an overdose of prescribed opioids about tripled.

So the CDC developed new guidelines for prescribing the painkillers to adult patients suffering from chronic pain.  The guidelines do not apply to patients undergoing cancer treatment or end-of-life care.

Doctor Miscommunication and Patient Opioid Abuse

Poor communication or miscommunication from doctors are leading causes of medical errors in general, but the CDC guidelines focus on improving communication between doctor and patient when it comes to opioids.  Prescribing physicians must clearly explain to patients the risks and benefits of opioids, according to the CDC.  They should also at the start outline realistic goals to limit pain and increase patient function, and maintain opioid therapy only when benefits to pain and function outweigh potential health risks to patients.

The CDC recommends that doctors follow up no later than four weeks after a patient begins using opioids to evaluate this risk-reward equation.  If opioid therapy is continued, doctors should follow up every three months, if not sooner, per the CDC guidelines.

Physicians Should Review Past Use of Prescription Painkillers

Doctors need to look at a patient’s history with controlled substances before prescribing opioids, using drug monitoring program data when possible.  Physicians should review the data again in the midst of a patient’s prescribed use of opioids.  The CDC also recommends doctors using urine testing before and during opioid therapy to responsibly assess patient abuse and health dangers.

As part of an overall chronic pain treatment plan using opioids, healthcare providers need to develop strategies to minimize risks for abuse, such as the introduction of medications that reverse harms caused by opioid overdoses.

And physicians must also factor in other medicines a patient may be on, and how they interact with opioids.  Specifically, the CDC suggests opioids should not be prescribed to a patient who is also using benzodiazepine, a sedative to treat insomnia and other conditions.

Earlier this year a study on opioid abuse funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration similarly suggested improved physician education that provided more options to chronic pain treatment to avoid physicians’ knee-jerk or lazy reliance on opioids.

Certainly patients play a role in avoiding deadly opioid addiction and abuse.  But doctors who make errors in prescribing them or administer them irresponsibly should be held accountable when their negligence directly harms their patients.

If you or a loved one has suffered from a mistake involving drug prescriptions or administration, contact a medical malpractice attorney who can review your case.

The choice of a lawyer is an important decision that should not be based solely on advertisements.

Authored by Gray, Ritter & Graham, P.C., posted in Articles December 28, 2017