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April 12, 2011


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Dr. Susan Weiss, Acting Director of NIDA's Office of Science Policy and Communications, discusses concerns raised by an analysis of 2009 data regarding national prescribing patterns for opioid painkillers.

BALINTFY: A recent analysis of national prescribing patterns shows approximately 56 percent of painkiller prescriptions were given to patients who had filled another prescription for pain from the same or different providers within the past month.

WEISS: Most of these are short term prescriptions; they're for two to three weeks.

BALINTFY: Dr. Susan Weiss is the Acting Director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

WEISS: The question really is why is there so much prescribing, and why is there so much prescribing in such a short period of time?

BALINTFY: The prescription data analyzed is from a privately owned national-level prescription and patient tracking service. The sample included 79.5 million prescriptions dispensed in the United States during 2009; that represents almost 40 percent of all the opioid prescriptions filled nationwide. Dr. Weiss adds that the prescriptions could all be perfectly legitimate.

WEISS: We can't tell that from this database. But it certainly raised questions for us and in particular it made us think that physicians should be asking their patients, "Do you already have a prescription that's sitting at home that you haven't finished using?" Before giving them another prescription for it.

BALINTFY: Most of the prescriptions were for hydrocodone- and oxycodone-containing products, like Vicodin and Oxycontin. While these medications are crucial for pain management, their wide availability may also result in leftover pills in family medicine cabinets, increasing opportunities for abuse, as well as a host of serious medical consequences, including addiction. Dr. Weiss says the fact that these medications are so commonly available is cause for concern.

WEISS: It may be that most of these are being used for very legitimate reasons and I don't want to underemphasize the importance of these medications for treating pain appropriately, both acute pain and chronic pain. However, we do think that their availability has gone up tremendously and we're seeing some of the consequences of that.

BALINTFY: From 1991 to 2009, prescriptions for opioid analgesics increased almost threefold, to over 200 million. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network system, which collects reports from hospital emergency departments across the nation, the non-medical use of prescription opioids doubled between 2005 and 2009. For more information on the recent analysis of opioid prescription practices, visit This is Joe Balintfy, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.