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DHMC study finds opioids are overprescribed - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

DHMC study finds opioids are overprescribed

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LEBANON, N.H. -

There's new information to help combat the opioid epidemic at its source.

A report out last week from the Vermont Health Department showed 104 people died from prescription drug overdoses last year, up from 66 the year before. It's the highest number of overdose deaths the state has seen in at least the past decade.

Along with the increase in overdose deaths, there has been a large increase in the prescription of opioids. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center's chief of general surgery says over the past 15 years, they have quadrupled. He says there are 82 for every 100 people in the U.S. each year. So the hospital wanted to know: How much of those prescriptions were actually being used? And what they found has changed the way they prescribe.

"A lot of docs think, 'Oh, I'm just going to give them plenty of opioids and that'll take care of it,'" said Dr. Richard Barth, the chief of general surgery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Barth says there are no guidelines for how many pain pills a patient needs after specific surgeries. So he set out to find out, asking nearly 900 patients who had come to the hospital for outpatient surgeries how much of their prescriptions they actually used.

"Patients only used about 25 percent of the opioids that they were given. So it was clear that we were overprescribing," Barth said.

The fix, he says, was easy.

"I just told the other surgeons in our group how many opioids patients are actually using," Barth said.

After getting that information, Barth says his doctors cut opioid prescriptions by 53 percent.

"What was really dramatic about this was that less than 1 percent of the patients needed to come back in for opioid refills," he said. "So even though we prescribed only half as many opioids as we had done in the past, we still took care of the patient's pain."

Barth says there were two major goals they wanted to accomplish. The first was to protect patients from long-term painkiller use that wasn't necessary. The second was to stop painkillers from being diverted into the hands of people who would illegally abuse them. With both of those, they hope to undercut the region's opioid epidemic.

Over-the-counter pain medications also undercut it because they help patients use fewer opioids. Barth says they're now telling patients to start first with ibuprofen and acetaminophen and only use the stronger stuff if they need it.

"In fact, those medicines are actually better than oxycodone and some of the opioids for taking care of acute postoperative pain," he said.

Barth says they're now expanding the study to look at inpatient surgeries so they can set guidelines for those, too.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock's findings were published in the Annals of Surgery. Barth hopes other surgeons around the country will see it and modify their prescribing habits.

Click here for more on the study.

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