Doctors are cutting opioids, even if it harms patients

FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo, shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. More than 28,000 Americans died from overdosing on opiates in 2014, a record high for the nation. That’s 78 people per day, a number that doesn’t include the millions of family members, first responders and even taxpayers who feel the ripple of drug addiction in their daily lives. A rise in prescription painkillers is partially to blame: The sale of these drugs has quadrupled since 1999, and so has the number of Americans dying from an addiction to them. When prescriptions run out, people find themselves turning to the cheaper alternative heroin and, increasingly, the even more deadly drug fentanyl. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
Doctors are being more careful with opioid prescriptions as addiction and its effects get more recognition. –Toby Talbot / AP

More than half of doctors across America are curtailing opioid prescriptions, and nearly 1 in 10 have stopped prescribing the drugs, according to a new nationwide online survey. But even as physicians retreat from opioids, some seem to have misgivings: More than one-third of the respondents said the reduction in prescribing has hurt patients with chronic pain.

The survey, conducted for The Boston Globe by the Sermo physicians social network, offers fresh evidence of the changes in prescribing practices in response to the opioid crisis that has killed thousands in New England and elsewhere around the country. The deaths awakened fears of addiction and accidental overdose, and led to state and federal regulations aimed at reining in excessive prescribing.

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Doctors face myriad pressures as they struggle to treat addiction and chronic pain, two complex conditions in which most physicians receive little training. Those responding to the survey gave two main reasons for cutting back: the risks and hassles involved in prescribing opioids, and a better understanding of the drugs’ hazards.

The results also suggest a substantial minority of physicians may believe the pendulum has swung too far, depriving pain patients of needed relief.

“Pain management is incredibly complex,” said Dr. Lynne M. Lillie, a Minnesota family physician and member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Read the complete story at BostonGlobe.com.

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