Objective: To assess the use of opioids by primary care physicians for the treatment of chronic pain.
Methods: A written survey was completed by 248 primary care physicians. Outcomes of interest included type of opioids prescribed, common pain diagnoses treated, opioid prescribing concerns, treatment of patients with a history of substance use disorders and clinic-based protocols for pain management.
Results: The mean age of the physicians who completed the questionnaire was 41 years. The majority were between the ages of 30 and 49 years (68%) with an equal number of men and women. Seventy percent were family physicians, 28.7% internists and less than 2% were community physicians and geriatricians. Physician concerns regarding opioid therapy included prescription drug abuse (84.2%), addiction (74.9%), adverse effects (68%), tolerance (60.7%), and medication interaction (32%). The survey found that the majority of the physicians were comfortable in prescribing narcotics to patients with terminal cancer. However, they were less comfortable prescribing narcotics to patients with low back pain and persons with a current or past history of drug or alcohol abuse. Physician management practices suggested that urine toxicology tests were under-utilized with only 6.9% reporting obtaining this test before prescribing opioids and only 15.0% performing urine toxicology tests on patients already prescribed opioids. Logistic regression analysis revealed that whether or not physicians routinely conducted urine toxicology screens was significantly (p = 0.015) predicted by whether they had a system to track patients on opioids when prescribing narcotics. The primary limitation of the study is the reliance on physician self-report rather than objective measures of physician behavior.
Conclusions: The survey suggests physicians are concerned about drug abuse, addiction, adverse effects, tolerance, and medication interaction. Their comfort level in prescribing opioids varies with the patient characteristics. Urine toxicology testing is underutilized in the primary care setting.