Opioids In Trauma Care: A Suggestion?

In my last post, I reviewed a paper that showed how disorganized we are at responsibly prescribing and providing instructions for use of opioid pain medications. Today, I’ll look at a paper that attempts to provide a bit more concrete guidance on what to do.

This study was performed at Dartmouth, and consisted of a questionnaire sent to a group of patients who had undergone an inpatient general surgical procedure during a 6-month period. These were not trauma procedures, but included gastric bypass, sleeve gastrectomy, lap or open ventral hernia repair, laparoscopic fundoplication, hepatectomy, lap or open pancreatectomy, and lap, open, or robotic colectomy. The authors specifically looked at opioid use before discharge, length of stay and complications, and opioid prescriptions and refills.

After excluding patients who had preop opioid use or abuse, and those who developed postop complications, there were 234 study patients. Here are the factoids:

  • Overall, 85% patients were given opioid prescriptions, and only 38% of the medication prescribed was taken
  • Patients discharged on postop day 1 had different requirements from those who were discharged later, and were studied separately
  • 88% of patients discharged on day 1 had their opioid needs satisfied by 15 pills
  • For patients discharged after day 1, there was a very strong correlation with home needs and the amount of opioid required on the before discharge
  • 41% of patients took no pills the day prior to discharge, 33% took 1 to 3, and 26% took more than 4
  • Proper disposal of unused meds was extremely variable

Based on this information, the authors calculated that 85% of patients’ home opioid use would be met by using the following guideline:

  • If no pills were used the day prior to discharge, none were prescribed
  • If 1-3 were taken, 15 were prescribed
  • If 4 or more were taken, 30 were prescribed

The authors estimated that, if these guidelines had been followed in the patients reviewed, the number of pills prescribed would have decreased by about 40%.

Bottom line: This is an interesting attempt to answer our questions about opioid use after discharge. Of course, there are limitations in extrapolating this to the trauma population. The pain patterns in patients with fractures, chest trauma, or multiple injuries are very different than those with abdominal general surgical procedures,  especially those performed with a laparoscope  or robot. But it does demonstrate some key concepts:

  • It should be possible to systematize discharge prescribing in a significant number of patients
  • We need to provide guidelines and expectations to our patients to help them minimize their use of opioids after discharge
  • We also need to make sure that our patients know what to do if they run out of medication
  • These guidelines must include safe disposal instructions for unused meds so they can’t be diverted for inappropriate use

I’m looking forward to more papers that help quantify these concepts. In the meantime, I guess I’ll hit the drawing board and start sketching out an interim guideline to tide me over until that happens!

Opioids In Trauma Care: Some Data

Yesterday I shared a TED Talk that outlined one person’s experience navigating the system (or lack thereof) for people trying to kick their addiction to medically prescribed narcotics. Today, I’ll share some new data that describes prescribing patterns and patient usage. This information was collected on patients after surgical procedures, not necessarily trauma, so this data may not be completely applicable. But it’s a start.

This paper is from the University of Vermont, and reviewed two datasets regarding opioid prescriptions. The first was a retrospective look at prescriptions written over a one year period after various surgical procedures in either an inpatient or outpatient setting at their center. This was used to design a patient telephone questionnaire containing questions about narcotic prescriptions and how much was used. The survey was administered about 1 week postop for patients having procedures over a 9 month period.

Here are the factoids:

  • Over 10,000 patients were identified in the retrospective arm of the study (!), of which 5100 were orthopedic procedures and 3100 were general surgery
  • 65% of patients were given only narcotic prescriptions on discharge, 24% were give no opioids, 3% were given only a Tramadol prescription, and 8% were given both
  • Residents wrote the vast majority of prescriptions at this academic medical center (63%), with 24% written by advanced practice providers and 13% by the attending surgeon
  • Drugs commonly prescribed in the retrospective data were oxycodone (44%, avg 30 pills), hydromorphone (31%, 25 pills), Tramadol (13%, 50 pills), and hydrocodone (8%, 20 pills)
  • There were considerable variations in prescribing patterns, drugs prescribed, and morphine equivalent doses provided across specialties
  • In the prospective data, the median amount of prescribed narcotic (in morphine equivalents) that was used was only 27%
  • Procedures associated with the highest amount of narcotic use were orthopedic in nature, particularly knee and shoulder operations

Bottom line: There is a huge amount of variability in prescribing patterns at one academic medical center, and this is probably true at most hospitals. There are a number of factors that contribute: the type of prescriber, local customary practices, type of surgery, and many more. Prescribers are not very experienced in predicting patient needs, and patients do not always do a good job communicating their needs to the clinicians.

In the next post, I’ll describe a suggested practice guideline that seeks to bring some sense to this complex topic.

Reference: Post-discharge opioid prescribing and use after common surgical procedures. J Am Coll Surg 226(6):1004-1013, 2018.

Opioids In Trauma Care: Food For Thought

Here’s something I ran across during my reading last week. In the “old days”, I used to encourage my trainees to be generous with pain medicine prescriptions for patients being discharged from the hospital. I would routinely send people home with 60, 75, or more pills. I got a hint of the folly of this just a few years ago when I underwent an outpatient procedure (biceps tendon repair).

The orthopedic surgeon prescribed 15 narcotic pain pills for me to take home. I scoffed at the low number, although I didn’t tell him that. But once I got home and the regional block wore off, how many do you think I took? Exactly one. I (safely) disposed of the rest. This prompted me to start rethinking our role in the opioid problem here in the US.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about a recently published paper and guideline for discharge opioid prescriptions. But today, watch the TED talk embedded below. It reveals the inadequacies within our health care system for those who, one way or another, have developed a dependence on these medications. It was an eye-opener for me.

The Handoff In Damage Control Surgery

Damage control is over 25 years old already! We continue to refine the techniques and closure techniques/devices, and have developed novel ways to speed closure of the abdominal wall in order to avoid pesky hernias. But the process itself is time intensive, and typically several days pass with regular returns to OR until closure is achieved.  This is one of the prime areas in which human error can occur, especially with modern service-style coverage of trauma patients.

In the old days, trauma patients were admitted by their surgeon, and that person provided their care nearly continuously until discharge. He or she rounded on them daily, took them back to the OR when needed, and then discharged them.

This is less practical (and desirable) in this day and age. And even if it seems possible, it’s not. No one can be on call 24 hours a day, and provide comprehensive care to every patient, around the clock. Many trauma programs have adopted a “service model”, where patients are admitted to a defined care team and managed by them. The team is led by a surgeon, but that person may change on a weekly (or in some cases nearly daily) basis. I call this the “interchangeable head” model, and to make it work there must be excellent handoffs during any leadership change.

In some cases, a patient may undergo a damage control procedure by one surgeon, but another must do the takeback and possibly the definitive closure. In this case, the handoff is critical! It is paramount that the next surgeon know everything about the first case so that they can perform the correct procedure.

How can this be accomplished? Here are some tips:

  • Do not rely on the medical record and previous operative note. It may not be available, and there is usually some loss of information in recording it anyway. Don’t believe it.
  • Ideally, meet face to face with the previous surgeon(s). Get the blow by blow description of exactly everything that was done and how. Also discuss what still needs to be done, and when. Try to maintain a uniform philosophy of patient care across surgeons.
  • If face to face is not possible, a telephone call is acceptable. The discussion is exactly the same.
  • If the surgery occurred at an outside hospital and was then transferred, you must call the initial surgeon to have this discussion before going to the OR!
  • If something unexpected is encountered during the case, make sure you have contact information so you can call during the case.

Applying these concepts will decrease the possibility of error, as well as the likelihood of any iatrogenic harm to these complex patients.

Home of the Trauma Professional's Blog

Do you want to get a daily email every time there’s a new post? See what I’m up to.

Click here to get details and subscribe!

Request a Topic

Subscribe now to the Trauma MedEd Newsletter and get a free copy of my guide, "How To Keep Up With Your Literature"!