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Quantifying prescribed high dose opioids in the community and risk of overdose

Schofield, Joe; Steven, Deborah; Foster, Rebecca; Matheson, Catriona; Baldacchino, Alexander; McAuley, Andrew; Parkes, Tessa


Joe Schofield

Deborah Steven

Catriona Matheson

Alexander Baldacchino

Andrew McAuley

Tessa Parkes


Opioid prescribing for a range of health issues is increasing globally. The risk of fatal and non-fatal overdose is increased among people prescribed strong opioids: in high doses in the context of polypharmacy (the use of multiple medications at the same time), especially with other sedatives; and among people with multiple morbidities including cardiorespiratory, hepatic and renal conditions. This study described and quantified the prescribing of strong opioids, comorbidities and other overdose risk factors among those prescribed strong opioids, and factors associated with high/very high opioid dosage in a regional health authority in Scotland as part of a wider service improvement exercise.

Participating practices ran searches to identify patients prescribed strong opioids and their characteristics, polypharmacy, and other overdose risk factors. Data were anonymised before being analysed at practice and patient-level. Morphine Equivalent Doses were calculated for patients based on drug/dose information and classed as Low/Medium/High/Very High. Descriptive statistics were generated on the strong opioid patient population and overdose risk factors. The relationship between the prescribing of strong opioids and practice/patient-level factors was investigated using linear and logistic regression models.

Eighty-five percent (46/54) of GP practices participated. 12.4% (42,382/341,240) of individuals in participating practices were prescribed opioids and, of these, one third (14,079/42,382) were prescribed strong opioids. The most common comorbidities and overdose risk factors among strong opioid recipients were pain (67.2%), cardiovascular disease (43.2%), and mental health problems (39.3%). There was a positive significant relationship between level of social deprivation among practice caseload and level of strong opioid prescribing (p < 0.001). People prescribed strong opioids tended to be older (mean 59.7 years) and female (8638, 61.4%) and, among a subset of patients, age, gender and opioid drug class were significantly associated with prescribing of High/Very High doses.

Our findings have identified a large population at potential risk of prescription opioid overdose. There is a need to explore pragmatic models of tailored interventions which may reduce the risk of overdose within this group and clinical practice may need to be tightened to minimise overdose risk for individuals prescribed high dose opioids.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date May 26, 2021
Online Publication Date Jun 24, 2021
Publication Date Jun 24, 2021
Deposit Date Sep 20, 2022
Publicly Available Date Sep 22, 2022
Journal BMC Public Health
Publisher BMC
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 21
Issue 1
Article Number 1174
Keywords Prescription opioids, Overdose, Analgesics, Comorbidities, General practice, Polypharmacy
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