Opioid Prescribing in a Cross Section of US Emergency Departments

Ann Emerg Med. 2015 Sep;66(3):253-259.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2015.03.026. Epub 2015 May 4.


Study objective: Opioid pain reliever prescribing at emergency department (ED) discharge has increased in the past decade but specific prescription details are lacking. Previous ED opioid pain reliever prescribing estimates relied on national survey extrapolation or prescription databases. The main goal of this study is to use a research consortium to analyze the characteristics of patients and opioid prescriptions, using a national sample of ED patients. We also aim to examine the indications for opioid pain reliever prescribing, characteristics of opioids prescribed both in the ED and at discharge, and characteristics of patients who received opioid pain relievers compared with those who did not.

Methods: This observational, multicenter, retrospective, cohort study assessed opioid pain reliever prescribing to consecutive patients presenting to the consortium EDs during 1 week in October 2012. The consortium study sites consisted of 19 EDs representing 1.4 million annual visits, varied geographically, and were predominantly academic centers. Medical records of all patients aged 18 to 90 years and discharged with an opioid pain reliever (excluding tramadol) were individually abstracted by standardized chart review by investigators for detailed analysis. Descriptive statistics were generated.

Results: During the study week, 27,516 patient visits were evaluated in the consortium EDs; 19,321 patients (70.2%) were discharged and 3,284 (11.9% of all patients and 17.0% of discharged patients) received an opioid pain reliever prescription. For patients prescribed an opioid pain reliever, mean age was 41 years (SD 14 years) and 1,694 (51.6%) were women. Mean initial pain score was 7.7 (SD 2.4). The most common diagnoses associated with opioid pain reliever prescribing were back pain (10.2%), abdominal pain (10.1%), and extremity fracture (7.1%) or sprain (6.5%). The most common opioid pain relievers prescribed were oxycodone (52.3%), hydrocodone (40.9%), and codeine (4.8%). Greater than 99% of pain relievers were immediate release and 90.0% were combination preparations, and the mean and median number of pills was 16.6 (SD 7.6) and 15 (interquartile range 12 to 20), respectively.

Conclusion: In a study of ED patients treated during a single week across the country, 17% of discharged patients were prescribed opioid pain relievers. The majority of the prescriptions had small pill counts and almost exclusively immediate-release formulations.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain / drug therapy
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Back Pain / drug therapy
  • Codeine / therapeutic use
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Fractures, Bone / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Hydrocodone / therapeutic use
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oxycodone / therapeutic use
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Hydrocodone
  • Oxycodone
  • Codeine