Oncologists prescribing fewer opioids worries researchers

The opioid epidemic has prompted several legislative and regulatory efforts aimed at inappropriate opioid prescribing. But some experts wonder whether oncology patients are getting their needs met amid the sea change.

A new study, published online in August in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, takes a look at whether these efforts to curb opioid prescribing have affected prescribing trends among oncologists, whose patients often require opioids for symptom management. The research team, led by Vikram Jairam, MD, from Yale University School of Medicine, found that from 2013 to 2017, opioid prescribing in the United States significantly decreased nationwide among oncologists and non-oncologists. The rate of decline was 20.7% for oncologists and 22.8% among non-oncologist physicians.

"Given similar declines in opioid prescribing among oncologists and non-oncologists, there is concern that opioid prescribing guidelines intended for the non-cancer population are being applied inappropriately to patients with cancer and survivors," the authors noted in the study.

The researchers also found that during the 5-year study period, 43 states experienced a decrease in opioid prescribing among oncologists. And in five states, opioid prescribing decreased more among oncologists than non-oncologist physicians. For palliative care providers, opioid prescribing increased by 15.3%, according to the research.

The findings were based on Medicare prescription claims data, specifically CMS’s Part D prescriber dataset for all physicians from January 1, 2013, to December 31, 2017.