Doctors Heavily Prescribe Painkillers For Patients With Depression

Steve Birr | Vice Reporter

A majority of painkillers prescribed by doctors go to patients with mental health conditions, which researchers fear is exacerbating opioid abuse and addiction.

Researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan found in a study published Monday roughly 51.4 percent of opioid prescriptions are going to people who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders. While those patients may have a chronic pain condition, doctors say mental health disorders can amplify the feeling of pain in those patients, reports STAT.

The researchers fear doctors may feel empathetic towards patients suffering a mood disorder, making them more likely to give those patients a liberal dose of opioids. They also note the risks of abuse are higher in the population of those with mental health conditions.

“We’re handing this stuff out like candy,” Dr. Brian Sites, senior author of the study, told STAT. “If you want to come up with social policy to address the need to decrease our out-of-control opioid prescribing, this would be the population you want to study, because they’re getting the bulk of the opioids, and then they are known to be at higher risk for the bad stuff.”

The study, published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, looked at data between 2011 and 2013 on patient health conditions and the medications they reported taking. The researchers also found people with depression or anxiety receive an average of two opioid prescriptions annually.

“There’s an emphasis now on cutting back opioid prescribing,” Dr. Mark Edlund, a senior public health analyst at RTI International, told STAT. “Probably just as important is assuring that we’re prescribing the opioids to the right populations, and that we’re doing our risk-benefit analysis on each patient.”

Opioids contributed to the first drop in U.S. life expectancy since 1993 in 2015. Doctors wrote more than 236 million prescriptions for opioids in 2016, showing American appetite for painkillers is not slowing down.

The New York Times recently culled through data from state health departments and county medical examiners and coroners, predicting there were between 59,000 and 65,000 drug deaths in 2016, the largest number ever recorded.

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