Background: Insufficient data have been available to date on the prevalence of opioid treatment in Germany, physicians' prescribing habits, and the percentages of cancer patients and non-cancer patients among those receiving opioids for an evaluation of the quality of care and an assessment of possible underuse or misuse.
Methods: The data analyzed in this study were derived from the statutory health insurance sample of the AOK health insurance company in the German state of Hesse / ASHIP Hesse for the years 2000-2010. For the purpose of this study, prevalence was defined as the percentage of insurees who received at least one outpatient prescription of an opioid (ATC N02A, excluding codeine, levomethadone and methadone). In order to control for population aging, the prevalence was standardized to the German population on December 31(st) of the preceding year and to the age-structure of the population as it was in 1999. Opioid prescribing for cancer was assumed when a cancer diagnosis was documented in the same year in which the opioid prescription was issued.
Results: The percentage of insurees receiving at least one opioid prescription rose over the period of the study from 3.31% in 2000 to 4.53% in 2010, a relative gain of 37%. Opioids were mostly prescribed to patients with non-cancer pain (2010: about 77% of opioid recipients). The percentage of non-cancer patients receiving long-term opioid treatment has also increased over the period of the study.
Conclusion: As opioids are frequently prescribed for non-cancer pain, it cannot be inferred from the observed increase in opioid prescribing that cancer patients are now receiving better opioid treatment than they were before. Further issues of concern are the observed increases in the prescribing of potent immediate release opioids and in the long-term opioid treatment for non-cancer patients, the benefit of which is currently debated.