While all areas of the U.S. have been hit hard by the continuing opioid abuse epidemic, a new report suggests that prescriptions for the powerful and highly addictive painkillers were much more common in rural communities, with almost double the rate of individuals receiving the drugs compared to rural communities.
The U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that roughly nine percent of rural residents received an opioid prescription in recent years, compared with about five percent of urban city dwellers. The findings were published in the latest edition of the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The report focusing on prescriptions for opioids in rural and urban counties between 2014 and 2017, using data from Athenahealth’s electronic health record system. Federal researchers analyzed prescribing rates among 31,000 primary care doctors in the U.S. and analyzed trends.
In 2017, 14 rural counties were among the top 15 counties nationally with the highest opioid prescribing rates.
Patients in rural areas had an overall 87 percent higher chance of receiving an opioid painkiller prescription compared to those in large urban counties.
Additionally, higher rates of opioid related deaths, including intentional and unintentional, have been recorded in rural areas.
Prior studies have shown the opioid epidemic is largely driven by doctor prescribing, in many cases when there is no legitimate need for pain killers.
The rates of patients receiving opioids overall decreased after the CDC released new prescribing guidelines for opioids in 2016, the researchers noted. The guidelines called on doctors to reduce unnecessary prescribing.
However, by March 2017 despite decreases in prescribing rates, there was still a gap between prescribing rates among rural patients and urban patients.
Study authors warn that opioid prescribing by doctors puts patients at risk for addiction and overdose. According to a report published in May 2018, many doctors simply prescribe opioids because they are rewarded by drug companies.
Opioid Crisis Continues
Drug overdoses continue to skyrocket in the U.S. A CDC report published late last year indicated opioids accounted for nearly 70% of all drug overdose deaths.
Some reductions of opioid prescribing rates have been achieved, as was the case in the new study. After the 2016 CDC guidelines, some doctors focused on reducing unnecessary opioid prescriptions.
However, in many areas this causes patients who already have an addiction to turn to illicit drugs, like heroin or fentanyl, which is now considered the most dangerous drug in America and accounts for one-third of all fatal overdoses.
CDC researchers called for more to be done to curb opioid prescribing in rural America, and to provide resources and support for addiction care, including overdose education, naloxone distribution, and medical-assisted treatment services.