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Opioid-free regimen after neck dissection keeps patients comfortable



– Many patients with thyroid cancer can be sent home after lateral neck dissections with few or no opioids, in the experience of an institution that made a sea change in opioid prescribing practices.

Dr. James Y. Lim, an endocrine surgeon and assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University, Portland Kari Oakes/MDedge News

Dr. James Y. Lim

Between 2012 to mid-2019, Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Portland, saw 243 patients who received lateral neck dissections for thyroid cancer and were opioid naive. Before a shift in prescribing practices in early 2017, 5.3% of patients were discharged without opioids after lateral neck dissections for thyroid cancer, whereas after the shift, 41.7% of patients went home on an opioid-free regimen, James Y. Lim, MD, an endocrine surgeon and assistant professor at the university, said during a poster presentation at the annual meeting of the American Thyroid Association.

The initiative, led by Maisie L. Shindo, MD, was started at the OHSU Thyroid and Parathyroid Center in late 2016 in an effort to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions in postoperative patients, Dr. Lim explained in an interview after his presentation. Dr. Shindo, coauthor of the study, directs the thyroid and parathyroid surgery department at the university.

“Before the initiative, standard postoperative pain control consisted of opioids. However, it was common for patients to mention that they did not need them at all,” said Dr. Lim. “Our prescribing practices today reflect the ability to maintain patient comfort without having to resort to opioids. We are able to keep more than 90% of our patients comfortable with a multimodal approach to pain,” he said.

Dr. Lim and colleagues used a retrospective record review to tally how many opioids were initially prescribed at discharge after lateral neck dissections for thyroid cancer, along with the number and quantity of refills for opioids after discharge. Opioid doses were converted to morphine milligram equivalents (MME), and dosing patterns were compared for the periods before and after Feb. 1, 2017, when operating surgeons changed opioid prescribing patterns. These two subgroups were termed group 1 and group 2, respectively.

In all, 143 of the total 243 patients included in the study were women, and the mean age at the time of surgery was 47 years. Patients in group 1 had 170 surgeries, and those in group 2 had 103 surgeries.

Group 1 patients received a mean 295.4 MME after surgery, and group 2 patients received a mean 85.89 MME, though there was wide variation in discharge prescribing within each group. The absolute difference between the pre- and postinitiative groups was 209.51 MME (95% confidence interval, 157.8-261.2), for an effect size of 1.08. The MME figures for each group reflected both discharge medication and any refills or rescue prescriptions that were required.

“Decreasing the volume of opioids prescribed at discharge will decrease waste and reduce potential for addiction,” the authors noted.

As far as is known, “this is the first study that seeks to identify the extent of opioid needs after an extensive neck dissection for thyroid cancer operation,” said Dr. Lim, who added that he has been surprised at how well patients do after surgery. He said he and other surgeons had expected patients to have more pain from lateral neck dissections than they seem to experience.

“There have been studies, including from our own institution, that reported the relatively small need for opioids after a central neck procedure, such as a total thyroidectomy,” Dr. Lim said. “Our study showed that those requirements remain low even with more extensive lateral neck dissections. In the last 8 months of the study, more than 70% of patients with lateral neck dissections did not require opioids on discharge.”

Dr. Lim said that he and the rest of the care team advise patients to ramp up nonpharmacologic options, including ibuprofen, acetaminophen, ice packs, and throat lozenges – all of which can make a big difference in postoperative comfort.

Paying attention to how patients fare during an inpatient stay or even same-day procedures can help physicians estimate postdischarge needs, said Dr. Lim: “For our lateral neck dissections, patients usually stay overnight, and we can get a pretty good estimate of how their pain is being managed off opioids. For same-day procedures, it requires evaluating the patient before discharge and reassessing the pain needs at that time.”

Helping patients and their families understand the postoperative course and what level of discomfort they can expect has helped in the effort to minimize opioid use, Dr. Lim said. Overall, patients, family, and staff have received the changes “very well,” he added.

Practices that are considering a move toward opioid-free or opioid-sparing regimens after surgery should know that “it does require buy-in from all members of the medical team as well as the patients,” Dr. Lim emphasized.

“It starts at the initial surgical consultation, with surgeons educating patients on what to expect in terms of postoperative discomfort and pain. Patients are informed that they will have some discomfort and mild pain that is generally controlled with nonopioid, over-the-counter medications and cold therapy to the surgical site,” he explained.

“It requires education of the nurses and residents to encourage moving away from using opioids as a first-line therapy,” but it’s worth the hard work to get to a point where patients are going home with few, or no, opioids, said Dr. Lim. “Ultimately, patients are happier and are often relieved that their pain can be controlled without opioids,” he said.

Dr. Shindo is the senior author of a related study examining opioid reduction in neck dissection for a variety of head and neck cancers. In that study, she and her coauthors found that opioid requirements vary by cancer type. In an upcoming manuscript, the researchers are aiming to characterize typical opioid requirements for commonly performed procedures, to provide surgeons with evidence-based baselines for appropriate, but not excessive, opioid prescribing.

Dr. Lim reported no outside sources of funding. He, Dr. Shindo, and a third author reported that they had no conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Lim J et al. ATA 2019, Poster 401.

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