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Opioid Prescriptions Starting to Plummet, but Still Remain High

NPR recently reported that a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that doctors are prescribing less opioids, and when they are prescribing them, they are prescribing, on average, a lower dosage. This is promising news, especially in light of the current opioid crisis our country is currently facing. However, the number of patients who are still being prescribed opiates still remains at a level that is way too high, and now doctors are giving patients prescriptions with even longer durations.

CDC's acting director, Anne Schuchat, was quoted as saying that "The bottom line is that too many [people] are still getting too much for too long." This, Schuchat believes, is what is fueling the problem with drug overdoses and deaths related to drug overdoses in this country. Andrew Kolodny, an addiction specialist at Brandeis University, agrees, saying that while we're in the middle of "the worst drug addiction epidemic in United States history," we're still "massively overprescribing" opiates to our patients.

For their latest report, the CDC's researchers analyzed the patterns of doctors prescribing opiates in the U.S. for the period of 2006 to 2015. The good news is that the annual rate of prescriptions fell by 13 percent. Additionally, the rate of doctors prescribing higher doses of opioids fell by 41 percent, and the overall number of opioids prescribed in the U.S. in total dropped 18 percent. At its peak, 782 MMEs (morphine milligram equivalents) were prescribed in 2010. In 2015, that number fell to 640 MMEs.

Now, for the bad news. The duration that patients are taking opioids has increased from an average of 13 days in 2006 to 18 days in 2015. This is worrisome because the longer a patient takes a drug, the more likely he or she will become addicted to it. And despite the otherwise promising numbers provided in the study, doctors in the United States are still prescribing three times more opioids than they were back in 1999, and three times more opioids than are being prescribed by doctors overseas.

To put this into perspective, Schuchat says that we are currently dispensing enough opioids in this country to keep "every American [medicated] around the clock for three weeks." Interestingly, the counties where opioid use seems to be most prevalent are those with a higher number of white, unemployed people who have achieved an overall lower level of education, as per the CDC's study.

How much more prevalent was opioid usage in these counties? By six times more, compared to the lowest-prescribing counties. So, it's no wonder that there is a higher risk in these counties for addiction, overdoses, and death. The CDC's latest study provides the numbers necessary to back up the guidelines issued by the organization back in 2016 which were aimed at reducing the number of unnecessary opioid prescriptions that were being given out like candy in this country.

Says Schuchat: "We do see some improvement. But we know we have much more to do. We think we are starting to correct the course. But turning a ship of this size will take time."