We can achieve opioid-free analgesia after childbirth: Stop prescribing opioids after vaginal delivery and reduce their use after cesarean

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Common misconceptions about reducing opioid use

Two misconceptions persist regarding reducing opioid prescriptions for postpartum pain.

Misconception #1: Patients will be in pain

Randomized controlled trials that compared nonopioid with opioid regimens in the emergency room setting and opioid use after outpatient general surgery procedures have demonstrated that pain control for patients receiving opioids was equivalent to that for patients with pain managed with nonopioid regimens.8-10 In the obstetric setting, a survey study of 720 women who underwent CD found that higher quantities of opioid tablets prescribed at discharge were not associated with improved pain, higher satisfaction, or lower refill rates at 2 weeks postpartum.4 However, greater quantities of opioids prescribed at the time of discharge were associated with greater opioid consumption.

Recently, several quality improvement studies implemented various interventions and successfully decreased postpartum opioid consumption without compromising pain management. One quality improvement project eliminated the routine use of opioids after CD and decreased the proportion of patients using any opioids in the hospital from 68% to 45%, with no changes in pain scores.11 A similar study implemented an enhanced recovery after surgery (ERAS) program for women after CD; mean in-patient opioid use decreased from 10.7 to 5.4 average daily morphine equivalents, with improvement in the proportion of time that patients reported their pain as acceptable.12

Misconception #2: Clinicians will be overwhelmed with pages and phone calls

Providers commonly fear that decreasing opioid use will lead to an increased volume of pages and phone calls from patients requesting additional medication. However, data suggest otherwise. For example, a quality improvement study that eliminated the routine use of opioids after CD tracked the number of phone calls that were received requesting rescue opioid prescriptions after discharge.11 Although the percentage of women discharged with opioids decreased from 90.6% to 40.3%, the requests for rescue opioid prescriptions did not change. Of 191 women, 4 requested a rescue prescription prior to the intervention compared with no women after the intervention. At the same time, according to unpublished data (Dr. Holland), satisfaction among nurses, house staff, and faculty did not change.

Similarly, a quality improvement project that implemented shared decision-making to inform the quantity of opioids prescribed at discharge demonstrated that the number of tablets prescribed decreased from 33.2 to 26.5, and there was no change in the rate of patients requesting opioid refills.13

Success stories: Strategies for reducing opioid use after childbirth

While overall rates of opioid prescribing after vaginal delivery and CD remain high throughout the United States, various institutions have developed successful and reproducible strategies to reduce opioid use after childbirth both in the hospital and at discharge. We highlight 3 strategies below.

Strategy 1: ERAS initiatives

An integrated health care system in northern California studied the effects of an ERAS protocol for CD across 15 medical centers.12 The intervention centered on 4 pillars: multimodal pain management, early mobility, optimal nutrition, and patient engagement through education. Specifically, multimodal pain management consisted of the following:

  • intrathecal opioids during CD
  • scheduled intravenous acetaminophen for 24 hours followed by oral acetaminophen every 6 hours
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) every 6 hours
  • oral oxycodone for breakthrough pain
  • decoupling of opioid medication from nonopioids in the post-CD order set
  • decoupling of opioid and nonopioid medications in the discharge order set along with a reduction from 30 to 20 tablets as the default discharge quantity.

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