Too popular a prescription
Report finds almost 2 million Ontarians got opioids in a year
TORONTO — Almost two million Ontarians — or 14 per cent of the province’s population — filled prescriptions for opioids in fiscal year 2015-2016, says a new report, suggesting that patients continued to be given the potent narcotics despite efforts to curtail what’s been called a national epidemic of overuse.
The report by Health Quality Ontario, released Wednesday, found that more than nine million prescriptions for the powerful painkillers were filled between April 1, 2015, and March 31, 2016, the most recent fiscal year for which data is available. That figure represents an increase of 450,000 prescriptions over the same period three years earlier.
Not only did the number of prescriptions spiral upward, but there was also a trend toward doctors choosing more potent versions of the drugs, as well as a spike in the number of patients receiving the medications, said Dr. Joshua Tepper, president and CEO of the provincial agency.
“Despite people (being) aware of the significant impact and danger of opioids, we continue to see a steady increase in the number of prescriptions being written,” said Tepper.
The report found there had been a shift to doctors prescribing stronger opioids over time. For instance, 29 per cent more patients received hydromorphone in 2015-16 than in 2013-14. The drug is five times more potent than morphine, the drug used in prescribing guidelines as a baseline standard for comparing the strengths of different opioids.
“Hydromorphone was a drug that a few years ago was very rarely used and now is being much more commonly prescribed,” he said. “You may see greater dependency over time developing with lower-potency (drugs) and people shifting (to it) to deal with the tolerance that developed.”
Addiction experts say another reason doctors switched to such opioids as hydromorphone, tramadol and morphine relates to the replacement of OxyContin in 2012 with OxyNeo, a tamper-proof version of the widely used drug that was subsequently delisted from Ontario’s drug benefit formulary in a bid to curb excessive prescribing.
Tepper said the report also looks at the age breakdown of patients receiving opioid therapy and the length of their treatment. For patients aged 18 and younger, twothirds of prescriptions filled in early 2016 were for a short duration, he said. “But what’s still striking is that one-third of people zero to 18 are getting ongoing prescriptions, which is still quite significant.
“Then you move to people who are 45 to 64. Only 20 per cent of those people who are getting opioid prescriptions are getting just a onetime, short-term (course). That means 80 per cent are getting repeat prescriptions.”
That ratio widens even more for people aged 65 and older: the data show only 15 per cent received a short-term course of opioids, while 85 per cent had ongoing treatment with the medications.
“So to the degree that we understand there is a role for short-term opioids, that’s not typically how we’re seeing them prescribed,” said Tepper. “That chronicity starts to lead into real issues of dependency.
“We’re not sure why we’re seeing these patterns and I think that the hope of our report is that people will start to take a really good look and try to understand within a given community what’s happening.”
While the report points to such measures as greater access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and an increased emphasis on providing treatment for opioid use disorders, the major driver of the opioid crisis — rampant over prescribing — continues.
The report by Health Quality Ontario found there had been a shift to doctors prescribing stronger opioids over the last few years.