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CDC warns against misuse of opioid-prescribing guideline


Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are warning against the misapplication of the agency’s 2016 guidelines on opioid prescribing, as well as clarifying dosage recommendations for patients starting or stopping pain medications.

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In a perspective published in the New England Journal of Medicine on April 24, lead author Deborah Dowell, MD, chief medical officer for the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, conveyed concern that some policies and practices derived from the 2016 CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain are inconsistent with the recommendations and often go beyond their scope.

Misapplication examples include inappropriately applying the guideline to patients in active cancer treatment, patients experiencing acute sickle cell crises, or patients experiencing postsurgical pain, Dr. Dowell wrote.

The guideline offers guidance to clinicians treating chronic pain in adults who are already receiving opioids long-term at high dosages, she noted. It includes advice on maximizing nonopioid treatment, reviewing risks associated with continuing high-dose opioids, and collaborating with patients who agree to taper dosage, among other guidance.

Any application of the guideline’s dosage recommendation that results in hard limits or “cutting off” opioids is also an incorrect use of the recommendations, according to Dr. Dowell.

While the guideline advises clinicians to start opioids at the lowest effective dosage and avoid increasing dosage to 90 morphine milligram equivalents per day or more, that statement does not suggest discontinuation of opioids already prescribed at high dosages, according to the CDC’s clarification.

The guidance also does not apply to patients receiving or starting medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder.

The commentary comes after a trio of organizations raised concerns that insurers are inappropriately applying the recommendations to active cancer patients when making coverage determinations.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and the American Society of Hematology, raised the issue in a letter to the CDC in February. In response, Dr. Dowell clarified that the recommendations are not intended to deny clinically appropriate opioid therapy to any patients who suffer chronic pain, but rather to ensure that physicians and patients consider all safe and effective treatment options.

In the perspective, Dr. Dowell wrote that the CDC is evaluating the intended and unintended impact of the 2016 opioid-prescribing guideline on clinician and patient outcomes and that the agency is committed to updating the recommendations when new evidence is available.

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