An overview of the patterns of prescription opioid use, costs and related harms in Australia

Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2014 Nov;78(5):1159-66. doi: 10.1111/bcp.12446.


Aims: To report Australian population trends in subsidized prescribed opioid use, total costs to the Australian government to subsidize these medicines and opioid-related harms based on hospitalizations and accidental poisoning deaths.

Methods: We utilized three national aggregated data sources including dispensing claims from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, opioid-related hospitalizations from the National Hospital Morbidity Database and accidental poisoning deaths from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Results: Between 1992 and 2012, opioid dispensing episodes increased 15-fold (500 000 to 7.5 million) and the corresponding cost to the Australian government increased 32-fold ($8.5 million to $271 million). Opioid-related harms also increased. Opioid-related hospitalizations increased from 605 to 1464 cases (1998-2009), outnumbering hospitalizations due to heroin poisonings since 2001. Deaths due to accidental poisoning (pharmaceutical opioids and illicit substances combined) increased from 151 to 266 (2002-2011), resulting in a rise in the death rate of 0.78 to 1.19 deaths/100 000 population over 10 years. Death rates increased 1.8 fold in males and 1.4 fold in females.

Conclusions: The striking increase in opioid use and related harms in Australia is consistent with trends observed in other jurisdictions. Further, there is no evidence to suggest these increases are plateauing. There is currently limited evidence in Australia about individual patterns of opioid use and the associated risk of adverse events. Further research should focus on these important issues so as to provide important evidence supporting effective change in policy and practice.

Keywords: Australia; death; drug utilization; factual databases; hospitalization; opioid analgesics.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / economics
  • Analgesics, Opioid / poisoning
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Australia / epidemiology
  • Drug Costs*
  • Drug Overdose* / mortality
  • Drug Utilization* / trends
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Inappropriate Prescribing / statistics & numerical data
  • Inappropriate Prescribing / trends
  • Prescription Drugs / economics
  • Prescription Drugs / poisoning
  • Prescription Drugs / therapeutic use*


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Prescription Drugs