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In Opioid Epidemic, States Intensify Prescription Drug Monitoring

Long before the current opioid epidemic, most states developed drug-tracking systems to allow physicians and pharmacists to check patients’ prescription drug use, including opioid painkillers, to determine whether they may be receiving too many pills, at too high a dose or in dangerous combination with other medications such as sedatives and muscle relaxants. But few prescribers took advantage of the systems.

Now, faced with a drug overdose epidemic that killed more than 63,000 people in 2016, at least 39 states are insisting that health professionals use the systems, known as prescription drug-monitoring programs, or PDMPs, to analyze each patient’s prescription drug use before writing another prescription for highly addictive drugs such as Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin. In Missouri, the only state without a monitoring program, St. Louis County adopted a local drug-tracking system and made its use by physicians mandatory.

“We saw a big nationwide push this year to make prescription drug-monitoring programs mandatory, more comprehensive and effective, and easier to use,” said Chad Zadrazil, a legislative attorney with the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, a federally funded drug policy organization based in Iowa. He said some states also are expanding access to the databases to assist in public health initiatives.

In the past, drug databases were used primarily by police to track down so-called pill mills, where doctors indiscriminately prescribe opioid medications for cash. And most pharmacists consulted them before filling a prescription. But few doctors took the time to review the databases before prescribing highly addictive opioids.

Until states began requiring physicians to use prescription drug-monitoring programs, fewer than 35 percent of medical professionals used the tracking systems to identify patients who may be at risk for addiction and overdose, Zadrazil said. Now, in states that require doctors to consult PDMPs, he said, physician usage rates exceed 90 percent.

Overall opioid prescribing has declined in those states as well, as have drug-related hospitalizations and overdose deaths. States also are seeing a rise in addiction treatment as more doctors refer patients to treatment after discovering they are taking painkillers from multiple sources and are likely addicted, according to an analysis from Brandeis University’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Training and Technical Assistance Center.

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