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More than half of urine drug screens showed improper medication use



More than half of patients tested for prescription drug compliance last year misused their medications, often supplementing them with nonprescribed and illicit drugs in dangerous combinations.

Pill bottles spill opioid tablets and capsules sdominick/iStock/Getty Images

Of almost 4 million urine screens examined, 52% were discordant for the screen-ordered drugs, Jeffrey Gudin, MD, said at the annual PAINWeek. Most common was the combination of opioids and benzodiazepines, which accounted for 21% of the discordant samples – and, in 64% of these cases, at least one of the drugs was not prescribed.

“Drug testing is a standard of care in pain management, and it’s the only objective way to know what patients are really taking,” said Dr. Gudin, director of pain and palliative care at Englewood (N.J.) Hospital and Medical Center. “What this tells us is that, if we just ask our patients, half the time they won’t tell you the whole story. More than 50% of the time things don’t match up. To me this is just unbelievable.”

Quest Diagnostics compiled these data, and many more, in its “Health Trends Report: Drug Misuse in America 2018.”

The report examines 3.9 million routine drug screens ordered by primary care and pain physicians during 2011-2017. It not only looks at prescription drug use and misuse but also tracks illicit drugs in both general and substance abuse patient populations. The findings reported at PAINWeek were based on 456,675 screens from 276,953 patients conducted in 2017. These results were included in the Quest Diagnostics medMATCH reports, which indicated what tested drugs were prescribed and whether these drugs were detected in the specimen.

The following were found among the discordant screens identified in 2017:

  • 45% were positive for nonprescribed or illicit drugs in addition to all the prescribed drugs.
  • 34% did not show all the drugs they had been prescribed, or any other tested drug.
  • 22% did not show all the drugs they had been prescribed but were positive for other illicit or nonprescribed drugs.

The tests were ordered as a part of routine care – an important point, Dr. Gudin said in an interview. “These are not ‘gotcha tests,’ ” intended to catch patients unawares. “These are regularly ordered screens that are standard of care in pain management.”

The report found that men and women were equally likely to misuse medications (52% each). There were some age-related differences, with misuse peaking in young adulthood: 60% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 56% of 25- to 45-year-olds. Misuse dropped off in those aged 55-64 years (52%) and in those 65 years and older (43%). But even children showed evidence of medication misuse, with about 41% of samples from children aged 10 years and younger being discordant.

The rates of misuse were about 50% in Medicare and private pay patients, but around 65% in Medicaid patients.

There was some good news: In the general patient population, opioid use was down by 12% from 2016 – the largest annual decrease Quest has noted since 2012. Several factors probably contributed to that decline, including shifts in clinical care and payer reimbursement, as well as regulatory and legislative restrictions.

“This shows that we’re doing better on the pain management front,” Dr. Gudin said. “But in substance use disorder settings, we saw 400% increases for both fentanyl and heroin. The addiction front it out of control.”

More than 27% of all specimens that came from substance abuse treatment centers were positive for nonprescribed fentanyl and 10% were positive for heroin. “We also saw that, in 2016, 45% of those heroin-positive samples had fentanyl in them, and in 2017, 83% did.”

Although not discussed at PAINWeek, the report also noted a rise in gabapentin misuse. The antiepileptic is now the 10th most commonly prescribed drug in the United States, the report noted, with 68 million prescriptions dispensed last year. The report found that 9.5% of tests showed nonprescription gabapentin. In the subset of samples obtained from substance abuse treatment centers, gabapentin misuse increased by 800% from 2016 – the most dramatic increase of any of the tracked drugs.

The combination of gabapentin and opioids is risky, the report noted. Opioid-related deaths are 49% more common among those taking both than those taking opioids only.

SOURCE: Gudin J et al. PAINWeek 2018, abstract 44.

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