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It’s Not The Number of Pills–It’s The Number of Deaths That Matter

Summary:
A letter to the editor in the August 14 New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at the University of Michigan proudly reported on the results of their effort, called the Michigan Surgical Quality Collaborative (MSQC), to reduce the volume of opioids prescribed for postoperative pain. The Collaborative developed a set of guidelines for its participating prescribers. As a result, they found that from January 2017 through May 2018, the mean number of pills prescribed for postoperative pain decreased from 26 (+/-2) pills pre-guideline to 18 (+/– 3) pills post-guideline. Patient pill consumption also decreased from an average of 12 pills (+/-1) pre-guideline to 9 pills (+/-2) post-guideline. During that period there was no discernible difference in the pain scores reported by these

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letter to the editor in the August 14 New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at the University of Michigan proudly reported on the results of their effort, called the Michigan Surgical Quality Collaborative (MSQC), to reduce the volume of opioids prescribed for postoperative pain. The Collaborative developed a set of guidelines for its participating prescribers.

As a result, they found that from January 2017 through May 2018, the mean number of pills prescribed for postoperative pain decreased from 26 (+/-2) pills pre-guideline to 18 (+/– 3) pills post-guideline. Patient pill consumption also decreased from an average of 12 pills (+/-1) pre-guideline to 9 pills (+/-2) post-guideline. During that period there was no discernible difference in the pain scores reported by these patients pre-and post-guideline.

It seems all of health care is now fixated on getting the number of prescription pain pills down. Yet there is no correlation between prescription volume and nonmedical use or use disorder/addiction. And as prescription volume has dramatically come down since 2010, the overdose rate has dramatically increased. Furthermore, in 2017 at least 75% of opioid-related overdoses were from heroin or fentanyl, while 40% of overdoses involving prescription opioids had multiple other drugs onboard, including heroin, fentanyl, alcohol, and tranquilizers.

So, as academic physicians continue to virtue signal and show the media and regulators how well they are complying with the “new opiophobia” by reducing opioid prescribing, the overdose rate continues to climb.

To be fair, an oversupply of prescription pain pills to patients can lead to more pills getting diverted into the black market for nonmedical users. But as a doctor who cares about reducing deaths, I would prefer that nonmedical users take diverted prescription opioids as opposed to heroin or fentanyl or counterfeit prescription pills made from fentanyl

The focus should be on the number of deaths, not the number of pills. For that to happen, policy must to shift to harm reduction.

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