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In Opioid Guidelines We Trust?

A common recommendation to combat the current opioid epidemic is to provide physicians with opioid prescribing guidelines. Opioid guidelines synthesize the available research to inform judicious prescribing behaviors and safe dosages when opioids are needed. Given the seriousness of the opioid epidemic, it is not surprising that multiple organizations currently produce opioid prescribing guidelines. Opioid guidelines are based on evaluations of the research, but the guidelines themselves need to be evaluated critically, as well.

Guideline Evaluation

Fortunately, there are multiple standards currently available to evaluate guidelines, including AGREE (Appraisal of Guidelines, Research and Evaluation), IOM (Institute of Medicine), GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) and AMSTAR (A Measurement Tool to Assess Systematic Reviews). For example, the AGREE consortium’s latest standard (AGREE II) provides a 23-point checklist covering six domains: scope and purpose, stakeholder involvement, rigor of development, clarity of presentation, applicability and editorial independence. While some AGREE II domains are obvious criteria including “rigor of development” and “editorial independence,” other domains such as “applicability” are less obvious but important.

See also: Who’s Going to Pay for the Opioid Crisis?  

For example, one part of “applicability” is about providing advice or tools for translating recommendations into practice. This point is important considering opioid prescribing guidelines will only work if practitioners can integrate use of the guidelines into their workflow and can apply them effectively to the appropriate individuals. Most chronic opioid users’ first exposure to opioids is through a physician’s prescription, and physicians’ opioid-prescribing patterns have been shown to be associated with opioid abuse and deaths. Therefore, preventing unnecessary first exposure to opioids is crucial.

Guideline standards have shown that not all opioid treatment guidelines are of equal quality. For example, Nuckols et al. (2014) assessed 13 opioid guidelines using the AGREE II and AMSTAR instruments. The authors found AGREE II scores ranged from 3.00 to 6.20 on a 1 to 7 scale, and AMSTAR ratings ranged from poor to high. Four of the guidelines were “recommended against using … because of limited confidence in development methods, lack of evidence summaries or concerns about readability.” This research proves that the quality of opioid guidelines does vary.

The National Guidelines Clearinghouse (www.guideline.gov) is a publicly available resource that provides summaries of guidelines that comply with IOM standards. Although not all guidelines are available free on the National Guidelines Clearinghouse website, it could be a good starting point for finding organizations with guidelines that adhere to a guideline standard.

Jim Smith’s Story

Jim Smith’s occupational injury provides a useful example of how being prescribed opioids contrary to high-quality treatment recommendations may lead to serious health and economic consequences. Jim is a 38-year-old construction worker who suffered an extremely painful lower back strain while attempting to lift a heavy box. Against most guidelines’ recommendations, he was treated from the start with a long-acting opioid, on which he became first dependent and then addicted, taking increasingly higher doses. Even on doses exceeding most guidelines’ recommendations, Jim still suffered from pain and limited mobility. In addition, he began to require supplemental medication to treat the side effects of his opioid use, such as constipation. He subsequently underwent surgery on his lumbar spine, which did not provide him relief from his pain, and he ended up a chronic user of opioids, permanently disabled and housebound.

If Jim had been treated according to any of the current, high-quality opioid treatment guidelines, he would not have received a prescription for an opioid as an initial measure. He would have been counseled to try over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, sent to physical therapy, prescribed exercise and perhaps offered a course in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). If opioids had been truly necessary in the acute phase of Jim’s injury, he would have been prescribed a limited course and then been gradually tapered off.

See also: 3 Perspectives on Opioid Crisis in WC  

Conclusion

It is very important to find guidelines that both reduce initial use of opioids and serve to guide the physician in tapering chronic opioid users off these drugs. For someone who has been on opioids for a long time, the tapering process could take many months or years, and there could be both physical and psychological complications during the taper. The process for weaning someone off chronic opioid usage will be discussed in the next article in this series.

In conclusion, users of treatment guidelines put a lot of trust into the recommendations provided. Using only opioid treatment guidelines with sound quality and content helps keep that vital trust so clinicians can continue to use guidelines in combating the prescription opioid epidemic.

How to Attack the Opioid Crisis

The vastness of the opioid crisis is all around us:

  • 259 million opioid prescriptions are made every year.
  • 91 Americans die every day of opioid overdose.
  • Workplace costs of prescription opioid use are more than $25 billion, driven by lost earnings from premature death, reduced compensation or lost employment and healthcare costs.

It’s time to take action.

See also: Opioids: A Stumbling Block to WC Outcomes  

As with any large-scale, complex phenomenon, there is no silver bullet. But a framework from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests three areas where we should focus our efforts: preventing new cases of opioid addiction, identifying opioid-addicted individuals early and ensuring access to effective opioid addiction treatment. We believe these areas must be attacked from a variety of clinical and operational angles.

From the clinical side, the emphasis has to be largely around better clinical training and urinary drug testing (UDT). A generation of doctors has been raised based on a curriculum emphasizing the need to manage pain aggressively. Retraining physicians on best practices is needed to reinforce safe opioid prescribing patterns. Research from Utah has shown that physician education on recommended opioid prescribing practices was associated with improved prescription patterns, including 60% to 80% fewer prescriptions for long-acting opioids for acute pain. When an opioid is prescribed, the use of UDT is a cost-effective way to monitor treatment compliance and drug misuse.

To address from the operational side, we need evidence-based opioid prescription guidelines in place and systems to track opioid prescriptions and adherence to guidelines. Further, we must ensure access to effective opioid addiction treatment.

Many health organizations and state health systems are aggressively adopting pain treatment guidelines that clearly lay out when opioids should and should not be used. And the preliminary results of implementing these guidelines are promising. For example, the introduction of opioid prescribing guidelines in the Washington state workers’ compensation system was associated with a decline in opioid prescriptions, the average morphine equivalent doses prescribed and the number of opioid-related deaths.

Prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP) allow for health systems to analyze opioid prescribing data to find potentially inappropriate prescribing behavior and illegal activity. For example, using its PDMP, New York City found that 1% of prescribers wrote 31% of the opioid prescriptions.

While prevention of initial opioid exposure is important, the treatment of opioid addiction is an important safety net when prevention fails. Pharmacotherapies including methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone are options for routine care of opioid dependence, but they are still in the early stages of the adoption cycle.

See also: Potential Key to Tackling Opioid Issues  

The foundation to address the clinical and operational approaches to opioid epidemic is two-fold:

  1. A strong system to determine what’s acceptable through well-defined, evidence-based guidelines; and
  2. A system to use these guidelines and trigger the right actions through processes and technology.

The next article will address the nature of these two systems.