Background: Opioid analgesics are commonly prescribed on an as-needed (PRN) basis for acute painful conditions. Uncertainty of how patients actually take PRN opioids, coupled with a desire to completely cover pain, leads to variable and overly generous opioid prescribing practices, resulting in a surplus of opioids. This opioid surplus becomes a source for diversion and nonmedical opioid use. Understanding patterns of actual opioid ingestion after acute painful conditions can help clinicians counsel patients on safe opioid use, and allow timely recognition and intervention when escalating opioid self-dosing occurs, to prevent tolerance and addiction.
Methods: We used a novel oxycodone digital pill system (ingestible biosensor within a standard gelatin capsule combined with 5-mg oxycodone) that when ingested, is activated by the chloride ion gradient in the stomach thereby emitting a radiofrequency signal captured by a wearable reader. The reader relays ingestion data to a cloud-based server that displays ingestion events to the study team. We deployed the oxycodone digital pill among opioid-naive individuals discharged from the emergency department with acute fracture pain. Participants were trained on digital pill operation and discharged with twenty-one 5-mg oxycodone digital pills. They were instructed to take digital pills PRN for pain on discharge. We conducted a brief interview 7 days after study enrollment, at which point participants returned the digital pill system. We identified oxycodone ingestion events in real time by data from the digital pill system and performed pill counts at the return visit to validate digital pill reporting of medication ingestion.
Results: In this study, 26 individuals were approached; 16 enrolled with 15 completing the study. Participants ingested a median of 6 (3-9.5) oxycodone digital pills over the course of 7 days, with 82% of the oxycodone dose ingested in the first 3 days. In individuals who required operative repair, 86% (N = 6) continued to ingest opioids at 1 week. There was substantial variability in ingestion patterns between individuals.
Conclusions: The utilization patterns of individuals with acute fracture pain could be captured using a digital pill system and revealed a median opioid ingestion of 45-mg morphine equivalents for acute pain over 7 days. Seven participants ceased using opioids within 4 days after discharge from the emergency department, although operative repair was associated with longer use. This digital pill system was able to measure changes in and patterns of opioid self-dosing, which varied between patients.