Sharp Decrease in Opioid Access for Dying US Cancer Patients

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

July 22, 2021

Terminally ill patients with advanced cancer may not be receiving adequate pain management, according to new findings.

There has been a sharp decrease in access to opioids during the past decade, and many patients are going to emergency departments (EDs) for pain treatment.

Overall, during the study period (2007–2017), there was a 34% reduction in the number of opioid prescriptions filled per patient and a 38% reduction in the total dose of opioids filled near the end of life.

There was a dramatic drop in the use of long-acting opioids, which can provide patients with more consistent pain relief and are important for managing severe cancer pain. The investigators' results show that during the study period, the number of long-acting opioid prescriptions filled per patient fell by 50%.

"We do believe that the decline in cancer patients' access to opioids near the end of life is likely attributable to the efforts to curtail opioid misuse," commented lead author Andrea Enzinger, MD, a medical oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts.

The study was published online July 22 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

"The study provides fascinating data that support our clinical observations," said Marcin Chwistek, MD, FAAHPM, director of the supportive oncology and palliative care program at Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who was asked for comment. "Primarily, we have noticed a heightened reluctance on the parts of patients with cancer, including those with advanced cancer, to take opioids in general."

Many Factors Involved

The crisis of opioid misuse and abuse led to the implementation of regulations to curb inappropriate prescribing. But these restrictions on opioid prescribing may have unintended consequences for patients with advanced, incurable malignancies who are experiencing pain.

"Many but not all opioid regulations specifically exclude cancer patients," said Enzinger. "However, the cumulative effect of these regulations may have had chilling effect on providers' comfort or willingness to prescribe opioids even for cancer pain."

She told Medscape Medical News that the prescribing of opioids has become much more difficult. Prescribers are often required to sign an opioid agreement with patients prior to providing them with opioids. Healthcare professionals may need to use a two-factor authentication to prescribe, and prescribers in 49 of 50 US states are required to check electronic prescription drug monitoring programs prior to providing the prescription.

"After the medications are prescribed, insurance companies require prior-authorization paperwork before filling the medications, particularly for long-acting opioids or high-dose opioids," Enzinger said. "These barriers pile up and make the whole process onerous and time consuming."

Patient factors may also have contributed to the decline in use.

"Cancer patients are often very hesitant to use opioids to treat their pain, as they worry about becoming addicted or being labeled a 'pill seeker,' " she explained. "Also, the added regulations, such as requirements for prior authorization paperwork, signing opioid agreements, and so on, may add to the stigma of opioid therapy and send a message to patients that these medications are inherently dangerous."

Enzinger added that there are legitimate reasons why patients may not want to use opioids and that these should be respected. "But addiction risk should really not weigh into the decisions about pain management for patients who are dying from cancer," she said.

Decline in Opioid Dose and Prescriptions

Enzinger and colleagues used administrative data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to identify 270,632 Medicare fee-for-service patients who had cancers that were associated with poor prognoses and who died from 2007 to 2017. During this period, the opioid crisis was first recognized. There followed legislative reforms and subsequent declines in population-based opioid prescribing.

Among the patients in the study, the most common cancers were lung, colorectal, pancreatic, prostate, and breast cancers; 166,962 patients (61.7%) were enrolled in hospice before death. This percentage increased from 57.1% in 2007 to 66.2% in 2017 (P for trend < .001).

From 2007 to 2017, the proportion of patients filling ≥1 opioid prescriptions declined from 42.0% to 35.5%. The proportion declined faster from 2012–2017 than from 2007–2011.

The proportion of patients who filled prescriptions for long-acting opioids dropped from 18.1% to 11.5%. Here again, the decline was faster from 2012–2017 than from 2007–2011. Prescriptions for strong short-acting opioids declined from 31.7% to 28.5%. Prescribing was initially stable from 2007–2011 and began to decline in 2012. Conversely, prescriptions for weak short-acting opioids dropped from 8.4% to 6.5% from 2007–2011 and then stabilized after 2012.

The mean daily dose fell 24.5%, from 85.6 morphine milligram equivalents per day (MMED) to 64.6 MMED. Overall, the total amount of opioids prescribed per decedent fell 38.0%, from 1075 MMEs per person to 666 MMEs.

At the same time, the proportion of patients who visited EDs increased 50.8%, from 13.2% to 19.9%.

Experts Weigh In

Approached for an independent comment, Amit Barochia, MD, a hematologist/oncologist with Health First Medical Group, Titusville, Florida, commented that the decline could be due, in part, to greater vigilance and awareness by physicians in light of more stringent requirements and of federal and state regulations. "Some physicians are avoiding prescribing opioids due to more regulations and requirements as well, which is routing patients to the ER for pain relief," he said.

Barochia agreed that some of the decline could be due to patient factors. "I do think that some of the patients are hesitant about considering opioid use for better pain relief, in part due to fear of addiction as well as complications arising from their use," he said. "This is likely resulting from more awareness in the community about their adverse effects.

"That awareness could come from aggressive media coverage as well as social media," he continued. "It is also true that there is a difficulty in getting authorization for certain opioid products, which is delaying the onset of a proper pain regimen that would help to provide adequate pain relief early on."

For patients with advanced cancer, earlier referral to palliative care would be beneficial, Barochia pointed out, because this would allow for a more in-depth discussion about pain in addition to addressing the physical and mental symptoms associated with cancer.

Fox Chase Cancer Center's Chwistek noted that patients and their caregivers are often apprehensive about the potential adverse effects of opioids, because they often hear about community-based opioid overdoses and are fearful of taking the medications. "Additionally, it has become increasingly challenging to fill opioid prescriptions at local pharmacies, due to quantity limitations, ubiquitous need for prior authorizations, and stigma," he said.

The fear of addiction is often brought up by the patients during clinic visits, and insurers and pharmacies have imposed many limits on opioid prescribing. "Most of these can be overcome with prior authorizations, but not always, and prior authorizations are time consuming, confusing, and very frustrating for patients," he told Medscape Medical News.

These findings suggest that not enough patients are getting optimal palliative care. "One of the primary tenets of palliative care is optimal symptom control, including pain," said Chwistek. "Palliative care teams have the experience and insight needed to help patients overcome the barriers to appropriate pain control. Education, support, and advocacy are critical to ensure that patients' pain is appropriately addressed."

The study was funded by a grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

J Clin Oncol. Published online July 22, 2021.

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