Opioids in the Closet: Seniors Uninformed on Opioid Risks

It is no secret that the United States is in the midst of an opioid abuse crisis affecting millions of people from all walks of life. But how well are people educated about these highly addictive medications, especially the elderly who must rely on health care professionals to get most of their information about this complicated issue?

A new survey points to a deficiency in the way health care workers explain the risks associated with taking opioid pain killers. The researchers found that the majority of seniors in America who are prescribed opioid medications are not told about the risks of taking the drug, how to use less of the medication, and when to use alternatives to opioids. They are also not aware of how to dispose of any extra medicine they might have when they no longer need these drugs.

The survey was conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. It was sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, the academic medical center at the university.

“We know that unused opioid medications that linger in homes are one of the primary pathways to diversion, misuse, abuse and dependence. As prescribers, we must find opportunities to discuss safe opioid use, storage and disposal with our patients,” said Dr. Jennifer Waljee, co-director of the Michigan Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network.

“It is critically important to provide a detailed plan for patients who get opioids for pain management and resources for disposal,” added Waljee, who is also an associate professor of surgery at Michigan Medicine.

The survey asked over 2,000 adults between the ages of 50 and 80 and found that almost one-third had received an opioid like OxyContin or Vicodin during the last two years, for relief from arthritis pain, back pain, the pain after surgery, of from an injury.

Most said that their doctors or pharmacist or other health care worker spoke to them about how often to take the medicine, but many fewer said they received other types of information connected to the medicine. Less than half said they were advised about the risk of addiction or overdose. A bit more than one quarter said their doctor of pharmacist told them how to reduce the amount of opioids they were taking.

Around 37 percent said that their doctor told them what to do with leftover medicine, while 25 percent said their pharmacist explained to them what to do with leftovers. Half of those taking the survey said they did not end up taking all their pills, while 86 percent said they kept the leftovers so that they could be used in the future if the need arose.

Alison Bryant, a senior vice president for research for the AARP said,

“The fact that so many older adults report having leftover opioid pills is a big problem, given the risk of abuse and addiction with these medications. Having unused opioids in the house, often stored in unlocked medicine cabinets, is a big risk to other family members as well. These findings highlight the importance of improving older adults’ awareness and access to services that will help them safely dispose of unused opioid medications.”