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Many Drug Abusers Use Family Members to 'Opioid Shop'

HealthDay News
by -- Robert Preidt
Updated: May 10th 2019

new article illustration

FRIDAY, May 10, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- People who are thwarted in their attempts to "shop around" for prescription opioid painkillers at doctors' offices and pharmacies may try to get the drugs via relatives as a last resort, researchers report.

Some people who misuse opioids go to numerous prescribers and fill prescriptions at multiple pharmacies to avoid detection. But states are cracking down on such "shopping," forcing them to find other ways of getting the drugs.

The new study suggests some try to get opioids from family members who are prescribed the painkillers. University of Michigan researchers said it's the first study to examine doctor and pharmacy shopping within families.

For every 200 U.S. patients prescribed opioids in 2016, one had a family member who shopped for opioids, the study found.

The findings underscore the need to reduce the number of opioids available for such diversion by limiting unnecessary prescribing, according to authors of the study published May 10 in the journal JAMA Network Open.

The researchers analyzed 1.4 million opioid prescriptions in 2016 for 554,000 people and relatives covered under the same private family insurance plan.

Of those prescriptions, 0.6% (1 out of 167) were filled by a patient with a family member who met the criteria for opioid shopping -- they had received prescriptions from four or more sources and filled them at four or more pharmacies in the past year.

That percentage means that 1.2 million of the 210 million opioid prescriptions in the United States in 2016 may have been dispensed to people who had family members who shopped for opioids, said lead author Dr. Kao-Ping Chua and colleagues.

When researchers defined opioid shopping as getting prescriptions from at least three sources and filling them at three or more pharmacies, 1.9% of opioid prescriptions met that criteria.

For opioid prescriptions to children, 0.2% were filled when the child, doctor and pharmacy met opioid shopping criteria, the study found.

And 0.7% of opioid prescriptions to kids went to those with a family member who met pharmacy shopping criteria. Though researchers can't be sure from their data, they suspect the adults were often the children's parents.

"This apparent doctor and pharmacy shopping behavior in children is likely driven by an adult family member, since children can't obtain opioid prescriptions from multiple prescribers and fill them at multiple pharmacies on their own," Chua said in a university news release. He's a pediatrician and health care researcher at Michigan.

To prevent people who shop for opioids from misusing family members' medicine, Chua said doctors should not prescribe more doses than patients need, and should order over-the-counter painkillers when possible.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on prescription opioids.