In a new study by researchers at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), UNSW Sydney, one-third of people prescribed opioids for chronic non-cancer pain reported challenges obtaining ongoing opioid prescriptions.

The study, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, interviewed people about access to ongoing opioid prescriptions as part of the 2018 follow-up of the Pain and Opioids IN Treatment (POINT) study. POINT is a long-term study of 1,514 Australians prescribed opioids for chronic non-cancer pain.

Lead author Ria Hopkins says 285 of 861 people reporting opioid use in the previous 12 months (31%) reported experiencing at least one challenge obtaining opioid prescriptions in the previous year, including problems with prescriber access and doctors wanting to reduce or cease medicines against participants’ wishes.

“Given opioids may be associated with adverse effects and other harms, measures have been introduced in Australia to curb growing rates of harmful opioid use, including changes to codeine scheduling, the introduction of prescription drug monitoring programs and Australia’s Chief Medical Officer writing to doctors identified as ‘higher opioid prescribers’ to encourage them to consider reducing their prescribing.”

Nevertheless, there are ongoing concerns about the potential negative impacts of these measures on people with chronic pain.

“Many people living with pain do derive benefit from opioids,” Ms Hopkins says. “When it comes to using opioids for chronic non-cancer pain, it is important that both benefits and harms are balanced.”

Dr Natasa Gisev, Scientia Senior Lecturer and senior author of the study states that “Our findings reinforce the need to consider both the intentional and unintentional impacts of strategies to reduce opioid use on the people who are directly impacted by these measures.”

With one in five Australians living with chronic pain, these findings are in line with reports such as Painaustralia’s “Impact of opioid regulatory reforms on people living with chronic pain” report and highlight the need to ensure measures to increase opioid safety are balanced and equitable.

You can also read about this study in The Conversation