Denial of prescription pain medication among people who use drugs in Vancouver, Canada

Harm Reduct J. 2024 Mar 28;21(1):72. doi: 10.1186/s12954-024-00956-5.


Background: People who use drugs experience pain at two to three times the rate of the general population and yet continue to face substantial barriers to accessing appropriate and adequate treatment for pain. In light of the overdose crisis and revised opioid prescribing guidelines, we sought to identify factors associated with being denied pain medication and longitudinally investigate denial rates among people who use drugs.

Methods: We used multivariable generalized estimating equations analyses to investigate factors associated with being denied pain medication among people who use drugs reporting pain in three prospective cohort studies in Vancouver, Canada. Analyses were restricted to study periods in which participants requested a prescription for pain from a healthcare provider. Descriptive statistics detail denial rates and actions taken by participants after being denied.

Results: Among 1168 participants who requested a prescription for pain between December 2012 and March 2020, the median age was 47 years and 63.0% were male. Among 4,179 six-month observation periods, 907 (21.7%) included a report of being denied requested pain medication. In multivariable analyses, age was negatively associated with prescription denial (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] = 0.98, 95% confidence interval [CI]:0.97-0.99), while self-managing pain (AOR = 2.48, 95%CI:2.04-3.00), experiencing a non-fatal overdose (AOR = 1.51, 95%CI:1.22-1.88), engagement in opioid agonist therapy (AOR = 1.32, 95%CI:1.09-1.61), and daily use of heroin or other unregulated opioids (AOR = 1.32, 95%CI:1.05-1.66) were positively associated with being denied. Common actions taken (n = 895) after denial were accessing the unregulated drug supply (53.5%), doing nothing (30.6%), and going to a different doctor/emergency room (6.1%). The period following the introduction of new prescribing guidelines was not associated with a change in denial rates.

Conclusions: A substantial proportion of people who use drugs continue to be denied prescriptions for pain, with such denial associated with important substance use-related harms, including non-fatal overdose. Guidelines specific to the pharmaceutical management of pain among people who use drugs are needed.

Keywords: Pain; Pain management; People who use drugs; Prescribing guidelines; Prescription denial.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Drug Overdose* / drug therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Prescription Drugs* / therapeutic use
  • Prescriptions
  • Prospective Studies


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Prescription Drugs