Doctors Are Prescribing Fewer Opioids But Rates Remain High, CDC Says : Shots - Health News U.S. doctors are prescribing opioid painkillers less often and at lower doses, but at rates that are three times higher than their European counterparts, the CDC says.

Opioid Prescriptions Falling But Remain Too High, CDC Says

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Doctors have gotten more cautious about prescribing opioids for pain. But too many patients are still getting the addictive drugs so says a new report for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has more.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: As everyone knows, the nation is in the midst of an opioid crisis. Millions of Americans are hooked on the prescription painkillers, and thousands are dying from overdoses. So Anne Schuchat, the CDC's acting director, says the agency wanted to see if things were getting any better.

ANNE SCHUCHAT: And we have good news. Half of the counties in the United States saw a drop in the amount of opioids that was being prescribed from 2010 to 2015. There was overall an 18 percent drop in prescribing.

STEIN: And the average dose that doctors are prescribing has also dropped, which is more good news, she says. Now the bad news - U.S. doctors are still prescribing three times more opioids than in 1999 and three times more than doctors in Europe.

SCHUCHAT: Overall, the level of prescribing today - it's enough that every American would be medicated around the clock for three weeks. So that's a lot of opioid use.

STEIN: And doctors are actually writing their patients prescriptions that last longer.

SCHUCHAT: The bottom line is that too many are still getting too much for too long, and that is driving our problem with drug overdoses and drug overdose deaths in the country.

STEIN: Because the longer someone has access to opioids, the greater the chance they'll get hooked. And the CDC's latest data show that there are huge variations in how doctors prescribe opioids around the country.

SCHUCHAT: There were six times more opioids being prescribed in the highest-prescribing counties compared to the lowest-prescribing counties, and that amount can lead to a much higher risk for opioid addiction, overdose and death.

STEIN: The counties where the most opioids are being prescribed are scattered all over the country, though they tend to be places with more white, unemployed people with less education. Andrew Kolodny, an addiction expert at Brandeis, says the new numbers show that the campaign to get doctors to be more careful still has a long way to go.

ANDREW KOLODNY: We're in the midst of the worst drug addiction epidemic in United States' history, but we are still massively overprescribing.

STEIN: So Kolodny and Schuchat hope that more doctors will start prescribing opioids much more carefully and use safer drugs, physical therapy and other ways to alleviate their patients' pain whenever possible. Rob Stein, NPR News.

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