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Opioid epidemic fuelled by doctors who ‘forget’ they’ve written a prescription

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Around 65 per cent of doctors working in hospital emergency units are under-estimating the number of prescriptions they are writing for the highly-addictive painkiller.

Emergency unit doctors write up to 10 per cent of all opioid prescriptions, and researchers think a similar under-estimation could be seen among other doctors as well.

During the year-long survey, the 109 participating doctors dealt with 119,428 patients, and wrote 75,203 prescriptions, 20 per cent – or 15,124 – of which were for an opioid painkiller. But 65 per cent of the doctors thought they had written far fewer opioid prescriptions than they did, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered.

After they discovered they had under-estimated, many of the doctors started writing fewer opioid prescriptions, the researchers noted.

Lead researcher Sean Michael said the problem extended far beyond the emergency wards and probably included all doctors. “Most believe they are doing the right thing, but we need to directly address this thinking to be sure they are not part of the problem,” he said.

Opioids are a family of painkillers – including codeine, Oxycontin (oxycodone) and morphine – that trigger pleasure receptors in the brain. As a result, people can easily become addicted, needing more powerful drugs as the body begins to tolerate them. In the US alone, 42,000 people died from opioid addiction, and another 2.1 million became addicts, in 2016.

(Source: Academic Emergency Medicine, 2018; doi: 10.1111/acem.13400)

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