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Researchers say there is room for improvement in ObGyn opioid prescribing practices

“Gynecologists are overprescribing postoperative prescription opioids in all levels of gynecologic surgery.”



Drug overdose is the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50. And the number of men and women dying from drug overdose shows no abating, with a sharp 17% increase in 2016 over 2015.1 The rate of fatal overdoses rose to nearly 20 people per 100,000 in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The highest death rates are reported in West Virginia, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio, and Rhode Island.2

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University, told The New York Times that there are “roughly two groups of Americans that are getting addicted. We have an older group that is overdosing on pain medicine, and we have a younger group that is overdosing on black market opioids.”1

Are ObGyns contributing to the over-prescription of opioid pain medications? Investigators from Florida Hospital, the University of Florida, and Orlando VA Medical Center are researching the question, and preliminary findings indicate that, yes, in fact “gynecologists are overprescribing postoperative prescription opioids in all levels of gynecologic surgery,” including after laparotomies and major and minor minimally invasive surgeries. Their work thus far, a prospective cohort study involving 113 patients enrolled to date, was presented November 15, 2017, in Washington, DC, as part of the 46th AAGL Global Congress on MIGS. They found that, on average, patients were prescribed 29.6 (SD, 9.3) opioid tablets, and they had 19.1 (SD, 12.6) tablets left over after surgery. Not surprisingly, patients undergoing major minimally invasive surgery and laparotomy were prescribed larger amounts of opioids than those undergoing minor minimally invasive surgery, but the amount of pain medication left over was similar regardless of surgery type.

The researchers also asked patients if they were told how to dispose of their leftover opioids; only 3 patients reported being told what to do if they had leftover medication.

Too many pills prescribed

In separate research presented at the meeting, investigators from Tufts Medical Center and Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, sought to determine opioid prescription practices and patient opioid use after benign hysterectomy. Using retrospective online physician and telephone patient surveys, they found that 51 gynecologists prescribed a median of 30 tabs of oxycodone or hydromorphone after abdominal hysterectomy and a median of 20 tabs after laparoscopic or vaginal hysterectomy. Nearly 65% (36/56) of women used less than half of the opioids they were prescribed, and 16.1% (9/56) used zero tabs. Opioid use was not found to be significantly different for women undergoing abdominal versus minimally invasive hysterectomy.

Managing pain expectations

It takes only 3 days of opioid use for a patient to be at risk for continued use (1 to 3 years) of opioids, said Georgine Lamvu, MD, MPH, CPE, in the educational session “Perioperative Management of the Chronic Pain Patient” at the AAGL meeting. And long-term opioid use is associated with addiction, misuse, and mortality.3 It is therefore crucial to understand how to prescribe pain medications and how to educate women on expectations of pain relief.

Dr. Lamvu and fellow presenters described a 4-step process to pain management: 1) assess—including taking a history and physical exam and providing a risk assessment; 2) check—for other medications that a patient may be taking and possible interactions, as well make sure that the patient is not obtaining opioids or benzodiazepines from other providers; 3) discuss—what pain expectations you have for the patient following surgery; and 4) observe—for clinical improvement, overuse, and misuse, and go slow with dose increases and consult support pain management teams when needed.

Overall, they recommended that surgeons perform a risk assessment (determine the risks and benefits of available therapies); educate themselves and their patients on the risks and benefits; and document the risk assessment, the final recommendations to the patient, and the education provided to the patient.

“We need to do a lot better job at educating ourselves and our patients about pain medications and pain management strategies,” said Dr. Lamvu. The presenters provided these key points for patient and family education:

  • Opioids are not first-line or routine therapy for chronic pain, and for acute pain they are used only for severe pain and in short-duration amounts.
  • Analgesia will not make you pain free. It only helps to alleviate some pain, and most pain medications take 1 to 2 hours to take effect.
  • A 30% improvement in pain and function can be expected for most therapies.
  • Recovery from surgical or acute traumatic injury is not immediate; it is expected to take 2 to 4 weeks.
  • Do not take extra medication doses beyond what is prescribed, and tell all of your providers what medications you are taking.
  • Do not stop taking opioids suddenly, instead taper the dose slowly as instructed by your provider.
  • Dispose of excess drugs appropriately—by taking unused pills back to your provider or crushing the pills, placing them in a small amount of liquid, and putting them in the trash.

“The reality is that the majority of patients are not using as many pills as we give them,” said Dr. Lamvu. “Adequate pain control does not supersede patient safety or the responsibility that we have as providers to our society.”

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