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Dispensing tailored opioid prescriptions for acute pain at ED discharge can reduce risk of misuse

Tailoring opioid prescriptions for patients discharged from an emergency department (ED) with acute pain can support recovery and help to avoid the risk of drug misuse, according to a study presented at the European Society of Emergency Medicine (EUSEM)‘s recent congress.

The study found half of patients discharged from an ED with acute pain required five tablets or fewer of morphine 5 mg or an equivalent opioid painkiller to help manage their pain and recover from their injury or condition at home.

By tailoring the number of opioid painkillers prescribed for each patient, ED clinicians can ensure the right balance between sufficient pain relief and avoiding the over-prescribing of these drugs, which can lead to dependence and abuse in some cases.

Professor Raoul Daoust, from the University of Montreal, Canada, who presented the research, said: ‘Opioids such as morphine can be very beneficial for patients suffering acute pain, for example when they have injured their neck or broken a bone. However, patients are often prescribed too many opioid tablets and that means unused tablets are available for misuse. On the other hand, since the opioid crisis, the tendency in the USA is to not prescribe opioids at all, leaving some patient in agonising pain.

‘With this research I wanted to provide a tailored approach to prescribing opioids so that patients have enough to manage their pain but almost no unused tablets available for misuse.‘

Acute pain recovery at home

Some 2,240 adult patients were recruited for the study, all of whom were treated at one of six hospital EDs in Canada for a condition that causes acute pain. They were each discharged with an opioid prescription and were asked to complete a pain medication diary for the following two weeks.

While half of patients took five 5 mg morphine tablets or fewer, the researchers noted that the number of tablets each patient required during the two-week period varied greatly according to the patient’s painful condition. For example, patients suffering from renal colic or abdominal pain needed only eight tablets and patient with broken bones needed 24 tablets.

Professor Daoust added: ‘Our findings make it possible to adapt the quantity of opioids we prescribe according to patient need. We could ask the pharmacist to also provide opioids in small portions, such as five tablets initially, because for half of patients that would be enough to last them for two weeks.’

Also commenting on the results, Professor Youri Yordanov from the St Antoine Hospital emergency department in Paris, France, who is chair of the EUSEM 2023 abstract committee but was not involved in the research, added: ‘It’s estimated that millions of people around the world are struggling with opioid addiction and more than 100,000 people die of opioid overdose every year. These drugs play an important role in emergency medicine, but we need to ensure they are prescribed wisely.

‘This study shows how opioid prescriptions could be adapted to specific acute pain conditions, and how they could be dispensed in relatively small numbers at the pharmacy to lower the chance of misuse. This research could provide a safer way to prescribe opioids that could be applied in emergency departments anywhere in the world.‘

Although widely prescribed in an emergency setting, a recent study has found that using opioids for patients with acute low back or neck pain offers no significant pain relief advantage compared to placebo.

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