9 out of 10 overdose survivors can obtain new prescriptions for the very same medicine that nearly caused their death, a recent study has revealed on Monday, December 28.
The findings, presented in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, surfaced following research led by Dr. Marc R. Larochelle, assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.
In the first stage of the analysis, experts combed through Optum, a health services platform which incorporates an insurance claims database containing 50 million entries.
That is how they discovered 2,848 individuals, aged between 18 and 64, who had survived an overdose sometime between 2000 and 2012, while being administered opioids against chronic pain (other than the one triggered by cancer).
More precisely, these patients had been taking an assortment of painkillers, such as codeine, hydrocone, tramadol, oxycodone and hydromorphone.
By studying medical records referring to drugs that had been prescribed to the subjects in a period starting two months before the OD and ending 2 years following it, researchers noticed that opioid use had escalated significantly in the week preceding the overdose, and had occurred in conjunction with tranquilizers in around 50% of the cases.
Experts were also shocked to discover that more than 90% of these persons successfully resumed their opioid habit, even for the same substances that had almost proved fatal to them.
In fact, while just around 10 to 15% of the OD survivors had stopped taking such pills for a while, in as little as three months they managed to obtain a new prescription, around a third actually reverting back to extremely high doses.
Stunningly, around 70% of them had been able to turn to painkillers again after being prescribed these drugs by the very same physicians who recommended them in the first place.
As study authors point out, this suggests how flawed communication between patients and doctors can be, and how ill-informed some medical practitioners are regarding the issues experienced by the ones they are treating.
Dr. Jessica Gregg, medical director of the Hooper Detoxification and Stabilization Center in Portland, Oregon, also holds this belief, revealing that physicians aren’t notified when those under their care suffer an overdose, and are frequently poorly trained and ill-prepared when it comes to helping their patients escape the throes of addiction.
Even more distressing was the fact that around 7% of those who had already experienced a near-fatal overdose suffered a second one.
Among these 212 individuals, the likelihood of ingesting more than the recommended amount of opioids was around twice as high for those who had been prescribed such medicine, and especially elevated for those who had been required to take more significant doses.
As researchers emphasize, given the fact that a growing number of people now take opioid painkillers on a regular basis, it is essential to raise more awareness regarding the dangers associated with abusing such medicine.
Moreover, records regarding overdoses should be more thoroughly kept as part of statewide prescription monitoring initiatives, and provided to former prescribers and current ones also, so that patients who have already experienced such brushes with death can no longer fall back on their self-destructive patterns.
According to Colleen Barry, co-director of the John Hopkins Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research, in some cases surviving an overdose can cause people to re-evaluate their lives, and kick harmful habits.
Unfortunately however, experience has shown that without sufficient support from family, friends and doctors, it’s much more likely to resume an addiction than to abandon it.
On the other hand, Robert N. Jamison, associate professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, cautions that in some cases quitting pain killers cold-turkey may be challenging and even dangerous.
The risks of experiencing crippling withdrawal symptoms are especially high when people have to deal with debilitating pain and have come to rely on these pills after taking them for years on end.
In these cases, other strategies could be adopted, such as pain management therapy, yoga, acupuncture etc.
Moreover, if opioids can’t be discontinued completely, doctors should at least ensure that they are always administered at the recommended dosage, without placing the patient at risk of suffering another potentially fatal overdose.
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