Potential for Harm Associated with Discharge Opioids After Hospital Stay: A Systematic Review

Drugs. 2020 Apr;80(6):573-585. doi: 10.1007/s40265-020-01294-z.


Introduction: Mounting evidence highlights the adverse effects of opioids. In spite of this, clinicians often prescribe excessive number of discharge opioids. The aim of this systematic review is to analyse the potential of harm from discharge opioids after inpatient care including excessive prescribing of discharge opioids, improper handling of unused opioids, and unintentional chronic opioid use.

Methods: A systematic search of MEDLINE, EMBASE, and Cochrane databases at the cut-off date of 1 December 2018 was conducted for studies reporting on various harmful effects of discharge opioids after inpatient care.

Results: Twenty-eight studies analysed the potential for harm of discharge opioids after various inpatient surgical or medical procedures. On average, patients consumed only 38% of the prescribed discharge opioid pills. Seventy-two percent of patients stored their leftover opioids in an unlocked location, and failure to dispose of unused opioids was reported in 94.5% of patients. These factors may contribute to the increasing rate of opioid misuse and diversion in the community. In addition, discharge opioids contribute to prolonged opioid use; the proportion of opioid-naïve patients still consuming opioids 3 months after hospital discharge is 10.4%. At 6 months, the proportion is 4.4%. Unintentional chronic opioid use is associated with pre-operative opioid use, history of substance use, specific comorbidities, and invasive surgical procedures.

Conclusion: This systematic review suggests that the current discharge opioid prescribing practices can be improved. Lack of patient education regarding storage and disposal of opioids also contributes to the increasing rate of opioid misuse, diversion, and unintended long-term use. More high-quality research with comparable outcomes is needed. Evidence-based hospital guidelines and public health policies are needed to improve opioid stewardship.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Patient Discharge*


  • Analgesics, Opioid