In the midst of an epidemic of prescription painkiller addiction and overdose deaths, a new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health survey suggests that more than half of patients prescribed opioids have leftover pills – and many save them to use later.
The researchers, reporting June 13 in JAMA Internal Medicine, also found that nearly half of those surveyed reported receiving no information on how to safely store their medications, either to keep them from young children who could accidentally ingest them or from adolescents or other adults looking to get high. Nor were they given information on how to safely dispose of their medications. Fewer than seven percent of people with extra pills reported taking advantage of “take back” programs that enable patients to turn in unused pain medication either to pharmacies, police departments or the Drug Enforcement Administration for disposal.
“These painkillers are much riskier than has been understood and the volume of prescribing and use has contributed to an opioid epidemic in this country,” says study leader Dr. Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, an assistant scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School. “It’s not clear why so many of our survey respondents reported having leftover medication, but it could be that they were prescribed more medication than they needed.”
Says the study’s senior author Dr. Colleen L. Barry, a professor who directs Bloomberg’s Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research: “The fact that people are sharing their leftover prescription painkillers at such high rates is a big concern. It’s fine to give a friend a Tylenol if they’re having pain but it’s not fine to give your OxyContin to someone without a prescription.”