Missed Questions, Missed Opportunities

According to new survey, patients report doctors are missing a key question that could help prevent opioid addiction and save lives.

CENTER CITY, Minn. (January 27, 2016) —Despite the deadly risk of prescribing pain medications, patients report heath care providers often do not ask a critical question that could save lives. While roughly a third of Americans have either experienced a substance use disorder or had a family member struggling at some point in their lives, patients report that nearly half of doctors, dentists and other prescribers did not ask them about that history.

That's according to a new survey of people who were prescribed pain medications in the last year. The survey, commissioned by the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy, found that almost half of the time (46% of instances), patient's state that prescribers did not ask them about past problems with drugs or alcohol before prescribing opioid pain medications.

"There's no bigger risk factor for becoming addicted to pain medications than a past personal or family history of issues with alcohol and/or other drugs," said Dr. Marvin D. Seppala, Chief Medical Officer at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. "As a medical community, we have to help the millions of patients with this risk factor mitigate that risk. There are many ways to do that, including utilizing more non-medication alternatives, enlisting extra support from loved ones, and prescribing smaller amounts at a time. But our first step has to be asking all the right questions in the first place. Many prescribers do, but as this survey indicated, too many still do not."

Even in the absence of a personal or family history of substance use issues, opioid pain medications present significant risks. They are similar to heroin in terms of their impact on the mind and body. In fact, a majority of heroin users report getting started with pain pills. Today, nearly two million Americans meet the criteria for addiction to opioid painkillers, and drug overdoses now are the leading cause of accidental death in this country.

"While opioids are effective medications for acute pain, we all have to be very careful with them," Seppala said. "Patients also need to be their own best advocates by asking about the side effects of medications, including the potential for addiction. And prescribers should review the warning signs of addiction and intervene when necessary."

The survey also found that eight out of 10 times, patients report they were prescribed opioid pain medications without asking for them. It also found patients claimed they were only told painkillers could be addictive six out of 10 times.

"Given the national opioid epidemic, every patient deserves to be told about the risks," said Seppala.

"Patients trust their doctors, but don't always want to bring up addiction issues because of the stigma that surrounds the illness," says Dr. Seppala. "Doctors can help take some of that stigma out of the equation by initiating that conversation appropriately as a medical one."

Other key findings include that while two-thirds (63%) of those prescribed pain pills had leftover pills, most report keeping the excess pills (74%). According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 54% of people using pain pills obtained them free from a friend or relative.

And for more information on the extent of the opioid epidemic, check out this research update from the Butler Center for Research.

Survey Methodology
Data was collected from respondents who participate in email survey panels. Respondents were ages 14 and older, who live in the United States and who have been prescribed painkillers within the past 12 months. Survey invitations were sent to a representative sample of the U.S. population as a whole in terms of age, gender, geographic location, household income and race/ethnicity.

Data Collection
The survey was conducted from July 31st to August 20th, 2015. 1,028 responses were gathered that met the requirements outlined in the Survey Methodology section above. Overall results obtained from the survey are statistically valid (at a 95% confidence level) to within +/- 3.0%.

About the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy
Our mission is to provide a leading national voice on all issues related to addiction prevention, treatment and recovery and to facilitate conversation among those in recovery, those still suffering and society at large. We are committed to smashing stigma, shaping public policy and educating people everywhere about the problems of addiction and the promise of recovery.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy is part of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the nation's largest nonprofit treatment provider. With a legacy that began in 1949 and includes the 1982 founding of the Betty Ford Center, the Foundation has 16 sites in California, Minnesota, Oregon, Illinois, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado and Texas. Learn more at www.HBFinstitute.org.

Reporters looking for resources, quotes, or contact with authors, please email or call 1-651-213-4231.