NEW YORK – Surgeons prescribe approximately 10% of the 280 million schedule II prescriptions written every year. Because patients report taking on average 20%-30% of their opioid pills, a large amount of these drugs end up being diverted to nonpatients and contributing to the opioid epidemic in the United States, said Jonah J. Stulberg, MD.

”You can’t turn on the television, pick up the newspaper, do anything on social media without seeing a lot of headlines about the tragedies occurring because of opioid abuse,” said Dr. Stulberg, assistant professor of surgery at Northwestern University in Chicago.

The majority of opioid abusers are obtaining the drugs through diversion, he said. “So the prescriptions we’re writing and the excess pills we have available, they do make a difference. They’re making it down the pipeline.”

Some practical steps

There are practical actions surgeons can take to try to reduce the sheer volume of prescription opioids that end up in the hands of people for whom they are not intended, Dr. Stulberg said at the American College of Surgeons Quality and Safety Conference.

Sign up for a prescription monitoring program, he suggested. These programs are now available in 49 states (Missouri is the exception). “It’s really easy to create an account as a provider.” Just search online for your state’s prescription monitoring program and enter your contact information, he said. The state will then ask you for some basic information.

Take it one step further and integrate your prescription monitoring program into your electronic medical records, Dr. Stulberg said. “We’re starting to integrate it in all hospitals in Illinois. That means when the surgeon or the nurse providers look up the patient, they will know if the patient got two other prescriptions in the last 2 weeks.” He added, “You can ask if they need more pills before adding to the surplus.”

Another practical strategy is to give patients better access to opioid disposal. Find out where the nearest drug return receptacle or kiosk is located – a pharmacy, police station, or elsewhere – and inform your patients. “We put opioid retrieval boxes in our clinic. When patients are educated about this, they bring [excess pills] back.”

Minimizing opioid prescribing in surgery

“This is not a problem of one individual specialty,” Dr. Stulberg said. “We have a problem of culture, a problem of mindset. So we need to approach solving this problem, in my opinion, from that perspective.”

Start with setting patient expectations in the preoperative period. Explain what the surgery entails and the amount of pain they should expect. “Patients have to understand what we’re doing hurts but we can manage that pain. It can make a big difference in their satisfaction … and also in how much medication they end up taking.”

In addition, perform preoperative risk screening for opioid abuse. “There is very good evidence that patients with addictions to other drugs, alcohol, or who have previous drug use, are much more likely to continue using prescription pain medications after a surgical encounter – 6 months to 12 months later.”

In addition, a paradigm shift in thinking is needed. “When we’re talking about pain control in the clinic and minimizing opioids during a surgical episode, we should be focusing on function,” he said. Orthopedic surgery is a prime example, where physicians encourage patients to start mobility exercises the same day of surgery because evidence shows it helps restore function faster.

Surgeons should tell patients that “the goal of how we are treating your pain is getting you to your optimal function.” Then check on function recovery postoperatively, he added. “We don’t follow-up – that is not part of our standard postoperative pathway in any way.”

Consider prescribing fewer pills postoperatively

If surgeons have a prescription feedback mechanism in place, they might know how many opioid pills patients are actually taking. “If I gave 20 pills to the last 10 patients but they only took 8 on average – can I go lower?” Dr. Stulberg said.

Researchers conducted a study to determine opioid needs for 80% of the patients at their institution after certain types of surgery (Ann Surg. 2017;265:709-14).

The study determined the number of pills that 80% of patients found controlled their pain: after partial mastectomy, 5; after partial mastectomy with sentinel lymph node biopsy, 10; after laparoscopic cholecystectomy, 15; after laparoscopic inguinal hernia repair, 15; and after open inguinal hernia repair, 15. These numbers represent about 43% of the actual number prescribed overall, so many patients are getting more medications than they require.

Dr. Stulberg suggested that surgeons could use the data from this study to counter any pushback from others at their institution reluctant to prescribe fewer opioids for their patients.