Opioid analgesic medications can bring substantial relief to patients suffering from pain. However, the inappropriate use, abuse, and diversion of prescription drugs in America, particularly prescription opioids, has increased dramatically in recent years and has been identified as a national public health epidemic. A set of clinical tools, guidelines, and recommendations are now available for prescribers who treat pain patients with opioids. By implementing these tools, clinicians can effectively address issues related to the clinical management of opioid prescribing, opioid risk management, regulations surrounding the prescribing of opioids, and problematic opioid use by patients. In doing so, healthcare professionals are more likely to achieve a balance between the benefits and risks of opioid prescribing, optimize patient attainment of therapeutic goals, and avoid the risk to patient outcome, public health, and viability of their own practice imposed by deficits in knowledge.

Education Category: Pharmacology
Release Date: 05/01/2017
Expiration Date: 04/30/2020


This course is designed for all dental professionals who may alter prescribing practices or intervene to prevent drug diversion and inappropriate opioid use.

Accreditations & Approvals

NetCE is designated as an Approved PACE Program Provider by the Academy of General Dentistry. The formal continuing education programs of this program provider are accepted by AGD for Fellowship, Mastership, and membership maintenance credit. Approval does not imply acceptance by a state or provincial board of dentistry or AGD endorsement. The current term of approval extends from 10/1/2015 to 9/30/2021. Provider ID 217994. AGD Subject Code 340. NetCE is an ADA CERP Recognized Provider. ADA CERP is a service of the American Dental Association to assist dental professionals in identifying quality providers of continuing dental education. ADA CERP does not approve or endorse individual courses or instructors, nor does it imply acceptance of credit hours by boards of dentistry. Concerns or complaints about a CE provider may be directed to the provider or to ADA CERP at www.ada.org/cerp. NetCE is approved as a provider of continuing education by the Florida Board of Dentistry, Provider #50-2405. NetCE is a Registered Provider with the Dental Board of California. Provider Number RP3841. Completion of this course does not constitute authorization for the attendee to perform any services that he or she is not legally authorized to perform based on his or her license or permit type.

Designations of Credit

NetCE designates this activity for 3 continuing education credits. This course meets the Dental Board of California's requirements for 3 unit(s) of continuing education. Dental Board of California course #03-3841-17227.

Special Approvals

This course is designed to meet the New York requirement for 3 hours of education in pain management, palliative care, and addiction every three years for those who are authorized to prescribe controlled substances.

Course Objective

The purpose of this course is to provide dental professionals who prescribe or distribute opioids with an appreciation for the complexities of opioid prescribing and the dual risks of litigation due to inadequate pain control and drug diversion or misuse in order to provide the best possible patient care and to prevent a growing social problem.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this course, you should be able to:

  1. Apply epidemiologic trends in opioid use and misuse to current practice so at-risk patient populations can be more easily identified, assessed, and treated.
  2. Create comprehensive treatment plans for patients with pain that address patient needs as well as drug diversion prevention.
  3. Evaluate behaviors that may indicate drug seeking or diverting as well as approaches for patients suspected of misusing opioids.
  4. Identify state and federal laws governing the proper prescription and monitoring of controlled substances.


Mark Rose, BS, MA, is a licensed psychologist and researcher in the field of alcoholism and drug addiction based in Minnesota. He has written or contributed to the authorship of numerous papers on addiction and other medical disorders and has written books on prescription opioids and alcoholism published by the Hazelden Foundation. He also serves as an Expert Advisor and Expert Witness to various law firms on matters related to substance abuse, is on the Board of Directors of the Minneapolis-based International Institute of Anti-Aging Medicine, and is a member of several professional organizations.

Faculty Disclosure

Contributing faculty, Mark Rose, BS, MA, has disclosed no relevant financial relationship with any product manufacturer or service provider mentioned.

Division Planner

William E. Frey, DDS, MS, FICD

Division Planner Disclosure

The division planner has disclosed no relevant financial relationship with any product manufacturer or service provider mentioned.

About the Sponsor

The purpose of NetCE is to provide challenging curricula to assist healthcare professionals to raise their levels of expertise while fulfilling their continuing education requirements, thereby improving the quality of healthcare.

Our contributing faculty members have taken care to ensure that the information and recommendations are accurate and compatible with the standards generally accepted at the time of publication. The publisher disclaims any liability, loss or damage incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application of any of the contents. Participants are cautioned about the potential risk of using limited knowledge when integrating new techniques into practice.

Disclosure Statement

It is the policy of NetCE not to accept commercial support. Furthermore, commercial interests are prohibited from distributing or providing access to this activity to learners.

Table of Contents

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#55150: Responsible and Effective Opioid Prescribing

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  • Participation Instructions


Pain is the leading reason for seeking medical care, and pain management is a large part of many healthcare professionals' practice. Opioid analgesics are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for moderate and severe pain and are broadly accepted in acute pain, cancer pain, and end-of-life care, but are controversial in chronic noncancer pain. In response to the long-standing neglect of severe pain, indications for opioid analgesic prescribing were expanded in the 1990s, followed by inappropriate prescribing and increasing abuse, addiction, diversion, and overdose through the 2000s. In tandem with the continued under-treatment of pain, these practice patterns led to needless suffering from uncontrolled pain, opioid analgesic addiction, and overdose. Opioid analgesic prescribing and associated overdose peaked in 2011 with both now in multi-year decline.

Patients show substantial opioid response variations in analgesia and tolerability and may exhibit a range of psychologic, emotional, and behavioral responses that reflect inadequate pain control, an emerging opioid use problem, or both. Clinician delivery of best possible care to patients with pain requires appreciation of the complexities of opioid prescribing and the dual risks of inadequate pain control and inappropriate use, drug diversion, or overdose. A foundation for appropriate opioid prescribing is the understanding of factual data that clarify the prevalence, causality, and prevention of serious safety concerns with opioid prescribing.


Inappropriate opioid analgesic prescribing for pain is defined as the non-prescribing, inadequate prescribing, excessive prescribing, or continued prescribing despite evidence of ineffectiveness of opioids [1]. Appropriate opioid prescribing is essential to achieve pain control; to minimize patient risk of abuse, addiction, and fatal toxicity; and to minimize societal harms from diversion. The foundation of appropriate opioid prescribing is thorough patient assessment, treatment planning, and follow-up and monitoring. Essential for proper patient assessment and treatment planning is comprehension of the clinical concepts of opioid abuse and addiction, their behavioral manifestations in pain patients, and how these potentially problematic behavioral responses to opioids both resemble and differ from physical dependence and pseudo-dependence. Prescriber knowledge deficit has been identified as a key obstacle to appropriate opioid prescribing and, along with gaps in policy, treatment, attitudes, and research, contributes to widespread inadequate treatment of pain [2].

The current extent of opioid analgesic use in the United States is unprecedented in the country's history and unparalleled anywhere in the world. Before 1990, physicians in the United States were skeptical of prescribing opioids for chronic noncancer pain. But as of 2017, 1 of 25 adults is prescribed an opioid such as oxycodone and hydrocodone for chronic pain, and sales of opioid analgesics now total more than $9 billion each year [3].

Worldwide consumption of opioid analgesics has increased dramatically in the past few decades, with the United States driving a substantial proportion of this increase. For example, the 1990 global consumption of hydrocodone was 4 tons (3,628 kg), compared with the 2009 consumption of 39 tons (35,380 kg); 99% of this was consumed in the United States. Similarly, 3 tons (2,722 kg) of oxycodone were consumed globally in 1990, versus 77 tons (69,853 kg) in 2009, of which 62 tons (56,245 kg or 81%) were consumed in the United States [3]. With only 4.5% of the world's population, the United States annually consumes more than 80% of all opioid supplies, including [4]:

  • 99% of all hydrocodone

  • 80% of all oxycodone

  • 58% of all methadone

  • 54% of all hydromorphone

  • 49% of all fentanyl

  • 43% of all meperidine

This disproportionate rate of opioid consumption reflects sociocultural and economic factors and standards of clinical medicine.

Between 1992 and 2003, the U.S. population increased 14%, while persons abusing opioid analgesics increased 94% and first-time non-medical opioid analgesic users 12 to 17 years of age increased 542% [4]. It is interesting to note that while opioid prescribing has increased precipitously among adults in the United States, the rate remained low and steady for children between 1996 and 2012 [5]. To assist in monitoring the public health problem associated with prescribed opioids, numerous governmental, non-profit, and private sector agencies and organizations are involved in collecting, reporting, and analyzing data on the abuse, addiction, fatal overdose, and treatment admissions related to opioid analgesics.

Before it was halted in 2011, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) provided estimates of the health consequences of nonmedical use of individual drugs, including opioid medications [6]. DAWN indicates that opioid abuse is a growing problem in the United States. In 2005 and 2011, hydrocodone and its combinations accounted for 51,225 and 97,183 emergency department visits, respectively. Oxycodone and its combinations resulted in 42,810 visits to the emergency department in 2005; this number increased to 175,229 visits in 2011 [7,8]. Visits for nonmedical use of all opioids increased from 217,594 to 420,040 during the six-year period.


Healthcare professionals should know the best clinical practices in opioid prescribing, including the associated risks of opioids, approaches to the assessment of pain and function, and pain management modalities. Pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic approaches should be used on the basis of current knowledge in the evidence base or best clinical practices. Patients with moderate-to-severe chronic pain who have been assessed and treated, over a period of time, with non-opioid therapy or nonpharmacologic pain therapy without adequate pain relief, are considered to be candidates for a trial of opioid therapy [9,10]. Initial treatment should always be considered individually determined and as a trial of therapy, not a definitive course of treatment [11].


Long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain. When opioids are used for acute pain, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids in a quantity no greater than that needed for the expected duration of severe pain. In most cases, three days or less will be sufficient; more than seven days will rarely be needed [10]. However, it is important to note that this guideline is based on emergency department prescribing guidelines for non-traumatic non-surgical pain [12]. It may be necessary to prescribe for longer periods in patients with acute severe pain.

With postoperative, acute, or intermittent pain, analgesia often requires frequent titration, and the two- to four-hour analgesic duration with short-acting hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone is more effective than extended-release formulations. Short-acting opioids are also recommended in patients who are medically unstable or with highly variable pain intensity [13,14,15].


Nonpharmacologic therapy and non-opioid pharmacologic therapy are the preferred first-line therapies for chronic pain. If opioids are used, they should be combined with nonpharmacologic therapy and non-opioid pharmacologic therapy, as appropriate. Clinicians should consider opioid therapy only if expected benefits for pain and function are anticipated to outweigh risks to the patient [10].

Opioid therapy for chronic pain should be presented as a trial for a pre-defined period (e.g., ≤30 days). The goals of treatment should be established with all patients prior to the initiation of opioid therapy, including reasonable improvements in pain, function, depression, anxiety, and avoidance of unnecessary or excessive medication use [1,10]. The treatment plan should describe therapy selection, measures of progress, and other diagnostic evaluations, consultations, referrals, and therapies.

In opioid-naïve patients, start at the lowest possible dose and titrate to effect. Dosages for opioid-tolerant patients should always be individualized and titrated by efficacy and tolerability [1,10]. When starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should prescribe short-acting instead of extended-release/long-acting opioid formulations [10].

The need for frequent progress and benefit/risk assessments during the trial should be included in patient education. Patients should also have full knowledge of the warning signs and symptoms of respiratory depression. Prescribers should carefully reassess evidence of benefits and risks when increasing the dosage to ≥50 mg morphine equivalent dose (MED) per day. Decisions to titrate dose to ≥90 mg MED/day should be avoided or carefully justified [10].

Prescribers should be knowledgeable of federal and state opioid prescribing regulations. Issues of equianalgesic dosing, close patient monitoring during all dose changes, and cross-tolerance with opioid conversion should be considered. If necessary, treatment may be augmented, with preference for nonopioid and immediate-release opioids over long-acting/extended-release opioids. Taper opioid dose when no longer needed [16].


Unrelieved pain is the greatest fear among people with a life-limiting disease, and the need for an increased understanding of effective pain management is well-documented [27]. Although experts have noted that 75% to 90% of end-of-life pain can be managed effectively, rates of pain are high, even among people receiving palliative care [27,28,29,30,31,32,33,34,35,36].

The inadequate management of pain is the result of several factors related to both patients and clinicians. In a survey of oncologists, patient reluctance to take opioids or to report pain were two of the most important barriers to effective pain relief [37]. This reluctance is related to a variety of attitudes and beliefs [27,37]:

  • Fear of addiction to opioids

  • Worry that if pain is treated early, there will be no options for treatment of future pain

  • Anxiety about unpleasant side effects from pain medications

  • Fear that increasing pain means that the disease is getting worse

  • Desire to be a "good" patient

  • Concern about the high cost of medications

Education and open communication are the keys to overcoming these barriers. Every member of the healthcare team should reinforce accurate information about pain management with patients and families. The clinician should initiate conversations about pain management, especially regarding the use of opioids, as few patients will raise the issue themselves or even express their concerns unless they are specifically asked [38]. It is important to acknowledge patients' fears individually and provide information to help them differentiate fact from fiction. For example, when discussing opioids with a patient who fears addiction, the clinician should explain that the risk of addiction is low [27]. It is also helpful to note the difference between addiction and physical dependence.

There are several other ways clinicians can allay patients' fears about pain medication:

  • Assure patients that the availability of pain relievers cannot be exhausted; there will always be medications if pain becomes more severe.

  • Acknowledge that side effects may occur but emphasize that they can be managed promptly and safely and that some side effects will abate over time.

  • Explain that pain and severity of disease are not necessarily related.

Encouraging patients to be honest about pain and other symptoms is also vital. Clinicians should ensure that patients understand that pain is multidimensional and emphasize the importance of talking to a member of the healthcare team about possible causes of pain, such as emotional or spiritual distress. The healthcare team and patient should explore psychosocial and cultural factors that may affect self-reporting of pain, such as concern about the cost of medication.

Clinicians' attitudes, beliefs, and experiences also influence pain management, with addiction, tolerance, side effects, and regulations being the most important concerns [27,34,37,39,40,41]. A lack of appropriate education and training in the assessment and management of pain has been noted to be a substantial contributor to ineffective pain management [37,39,41,42]. As a result, many clinicians, especially primary care physicians, do not feel confident about their ability to manage pain in their patients [37,39].

Clinicians require a clear understanding of available medications to relieve pain, including appropriate dosing, safety profiles, and side effects. If necessary, clinicians should consult with pain specialists to develop an effective approach.

Strong opioids are used for severe pain at the end of life [30,34,43,44]. Morphine, buprenorphine, oxycodone, hydromorphone, fentanyl, and methadone are the most widely used in the United States [45]. Unlike nonopioids, opioids do not have a ceiling effect, and the dose can be titrated until pain is relieved or side effects become unmanageable. For an opioid-naïve patient or a patient who has been receiving low doses of a weak opioid, the initial dose should be low, and, if pain persists, the dose may be titrated up daily until pain is controlled.

More than one route of opioid administration will be needed by many patients during end-of-life care, but in general, opioids should be given orally, as this route is the most convenient and least expensive. The transdermal route is preferred to the parenteral route, although dosing with a transdermal patch is less flexible and so may not be appropriate for patients with unstable pain [34]. Intramuscular injections should be avoided because injections are painful, drug absorption is unreliable, and the time to peak concentration is long [34].


Information obtained by patient history, physical examination, and interview, from family members, a spouse, or state prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP), and from the use of screening and assessment tools can help the clinician to stratify the patient according to level of risk for developing problematic opioid behavioral responses (Table 1). Low-risk patients receive the standard level of monitoring, vigilance, and care. Moderate-risk patients should be considered for an additional level of monitoring and provider contact, and high-risk patients are likely to require intensive and structured monitoring and follow-up contact, additional consultation with psychiatric and addiction medicine specialists, and limited supplies of short-acting opioid formulations [10,26].


Low Risk
Definable physical pathology with objective signs and reliable symptoms
Clinical correlation with diagnostic testing, including MRI, physical examination, and interventional diagnostic techniques
With or without mild psychologic comorbidity
With or without minor medical comorbidity
No or well-defined and controlled personal or family history of alcoholism or substance abuse
Age 45 years or older
High levels of pain acceptance and active coping strategies
High motivation and willingness to participate in multimodal therapy and attempting to function at normal levels
Medium Risk
Significant pain problems with objective signs and symptoms confirmed by radiologic evaluation, physical examination, or diagnostic interventions
Moderate psychologic problems, well controlled by therapy
Moderate coexisting medical disorders that are well controlled by medical therapy and are not affected by chronic opioid therapy (e.g., central sleep apnea)
Develops mild tolerance but not hyperalgesia without physical dependence or addiction
Past history of personal or family history of alcoholism or substance abuse
Pain involving more than three regions of the body
Defined pathology with moderate levels of pain acceptance and coping strategies
Willing to participate in multimodal therapy, attempting to function in normal daily life
High Risk
Widespread pain without objective signs and symptoms
Pain involving more than three regions of the body
Aberrant drug-related behavior
History of alcoholism or drug misuse, abuse, addiction, diversion, dependency, tolerance, or hyperalgesia
Major psychologic disorders
Age younger than 45 years
HIV-related pain
High levels of pain exacerbation and low levels of coping strategies
Unwilling to participate in multimodal therapy, not functioning close to a near normal lifestyle
HIV = human immunodeficiency syndrome, MRI = magnetic resonance imaging.

Before deciding to prescribe an opioid analgesic, clinicians should perform and document a detailed patient assessment that includes [1]:

  • Pain indications for opioid therapy

  • Nature and intensity of pain

  • Past and current pain treatments and patient response

  • Comorbid conditions

  • Pain impact on physical and psychologic function

  • Social support, housing, and employment

  • Home environment (i.e., stressful or supportive)

  • Pain impact on sleep, mood, work, relationships, leisure, and substance use

  • Patient history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse

If substance abuse is active, in remission, or in the patient's history, consult an addiction specialist before starting opioids [1]. In active substance abuse, do not prescribe opioids until the patient is engaged in treatment/recovery program or other arrangement made, such as addiction professional co-management and additional monitoring. When considering an opioid analgesic (particularly those that are extended-release or long-acting), one must always weigh the benefits against the risks of overdose, abuse, addiction, physical dependence and tolerance, adverse drug interactions, and accidental exposure by children [10,16].

Screening and assessment tools can help guide patient stratification according to risk level and inform the appropriate degree of structure and monitoring in the treatment plan. It should be noted that despite widespread endorsement of screening tool use to help determine patient risk level, most tools have not been extensively evaluated, validated, or compared to each other, and evidence of their reliability is poor [17].


Opioid Risk Tool (ORT)

The Opioid Risk Tool (ORT) is a five-item assessment to help predict aberrant drug-related behavior. The ORT is also used to establish patient risk level through categorization into low, medium, or high levels of risk for aberrant drug-related behaviors based on responses to questions of previous alcohol/drug abuse, psychologic disorders, and other risk factors [18].

Screener and Opioid Assessment for Patients with Pain-Revised (SOAPP-R)

The Screener and Opioid Assessment for Patients with Pain-Revised (SOAPP-R) is a patient-administered, 24-item screen with questions addressing history of alcohol/substance use, psychologic status, mood, cravings, and stress. Like the ORT, the SOAPP-R helps assess risk level of aberrant drug-related behaviors and the appropriate extent of monitoring [19].


The original CAGE (Cut down, Annoyed, Guilty, and Eye-opener) Questionnaire consisted of four questions designed to help clinicians determine the likelihood that a patient was misusing or abusing alcohol. These same four questions were modified to create the CAGE-AID (adapted to include drugs), revised to assess the likelihood of current substance abuse [20].

Diagnosis, Intractability, Risk, and Efficacy (DIRE) Tool

The Diagnosis, Intractability, Risk, and Efficacy (DIRE) risk assessment tool is a clinician-rated questionnaire that is used to predict patient compliance with long-term opioid therapy [21]. Patients scoring lower on the DIRE tool are poor candidates for long-term opioid analgesia.

Mental Health Screening Tool

The Mental Health Screening Tool is a five-item screen that asks about a patient's feelings of happiness, calmness, peacefulness, nervousness, and depression in the past month [22]. A lower score on this tool is an indicator that the patient should be referred to a specialist for pain management.

Informed Consent and Treatment Agreements

The initial opioid prescription is preceded by a written informed consent or "treatment agreement" [1]. This agreement should address potential side effects, tolerance and/or physical dependence, drug interactions, motor skill impairment, limited evidence of long-term benefit, misuse, dependence, addiction, and overdose. Informed consent documents should include information regarding the risk/benefit profile for the drug(s) being prescribed. The prescribing policies should be clearly delineated, including the number/frequency of refills, early refills, and procedures for lost or stolen medications.

The treatment agreement also outlines joint physician and patient responsibilities. The patient agrees to using medications safely, refraining from "doctor shopping," and consenting to routine urine drug testing (UDT). The prescriber's responsibility is to address unforeseen problems and prescribe scheduled refills. Reasons for opioid therapy change or discontinuation should be listed. Agreements can also include sections related to follow-up visits, monitoring, and safe storage and disposal of unused drugs.


When implementing a chronic pain treatment plan that involves the use of opioids, the patient should be frequently reassessed for changes in pain origin, health, and function [1]. This can include input from family members and/or the state PDMP. During the initiation phase and during any changes to the dosage or agent used, patient contact should be increased. At every visit, chronic opioid response may be monitored according to the "5 A's" [1,23]:

  • Analgesia

  • Activities of daily living

  • Adverse or side effects

  • Aberrant drug-related behaviors

  • Affect (i.e., patient mood)

Signs and symptoms that, if present, may suggest a problematic response to the opioid and interference with the goal of functional improvement include [24]:

  • Excessive sleeping or days and nights turned around

  • Diminished appetite

  • Short attention span or inability to concentrate

  • Mood volatility, especially irritability

  • Lack of involvement with others

  • Impaired functioning due to drug effects

  • Use of the opioid to regress instead of re-engaging in life

  • Lack of attention to hygiene and appearance

The decision to continue, change, or terminate opioid therapy is based on progress toward treatment objectives and absence of adverse effects and risks of overdose or diversion [1]. Satisfactory therapy is indicated by improvements in pain, function, and quality of life. Brief assessment tools to assess pain and function may be useful, as may UDTs. Treatment plans may include periodic pill counts to confirm adherence and minimize diversion.

Involvement of Family

Family members of the patient can provide the clinician with valuable information that better informs decision making regarding continuing opioid therapy. Family members can observe whether a patient is losing control of his or her life or becoming less functional or more depressed during the course of opioid therapy. They can also provide input regarding positive or negative changes in patient function, attitude, and level of comfort. The following questions can be asked of family members or a spouse to help clarify whether the patient's response to opioid therapy is favorable or unfavorable [24]:

  • Is the person's day centered around taking the opioid medication? Response can help clarify long-term risks and benefits of the medication and identify other treatment options.

  • Does the person take pain medication only on occasion, perhaps three or four times per week? If yes, the likelihood of addiction is low.

  • Have there been any other substance (alcohol or drug) abuse problems in the person's life? An affirmative response should be taken into consideration when prescribing.

  • Does the person in pain spend most of the day resting, avoiding activity, or feeling depressed? If so, this suggests the pain medication is failing to promote rehabilitation. Daily activity is essential, and the patient may be considered for enrollment in a graduated exercise program

  • Is the person in pain able to function (e.g., work, do household chores, play) with pain medication in a way that is clearly better than without? If yes, this suggests the pain medication is contributing to wellness.

Assessment Tools


VIGIL is the acronym for a five-step risk management strategy designed to empower clinicians to appropriately prescribe opioids for pain by reducing regulatory concerns and to give pharmacists a framework for resolving ambiguous opioid analgesic prescriptions in a manner that preserves legitimate patient need while potentially deterring diverters. The components of VIGIL are:

  • Verification: Is this a responsible opioid user?

  • Identification: Is the identity of this patient verifiable?

  • Generalization: Do we agree on mutual responsibilities and expectations?

  • Interpretation: Do I feel comfortable allowing this person to have controlled substances?

  • Legalization: Am I acting legally and responsibly?

The foundation of VIGIL is a collaborative physician/pharmacist relationship [25].

Current Opioid Misuse Measure (COMM)

The Current Opioid Misuse Measure (COMM) is a 17-item patient self-report assessment designed to help clinicians identify misuse or abuse in chronic pain patients. Unlike the ORT and the SOAPP-R, the COMM identifies aberrant behaviors associated with opioid misuse in patients already receiving long-term opioid therapy [26]. Sample questions include: In the past 30 days, how often have you had to take more of your medication than prescribed? In the past 30 days, how much of your time was spent thinking about opioid medications (e.g., having enough, taking them, dosing schedule)?

Pain Assessment and Documentation Tool (PADT)

Guidelines by the CDC, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB), and the Joint Commission stress the importance of documentation from both a healthcare quality and medicolegal perspective. Research has found widespread deficits in chart notes and progress documentation with chronic pain patients receiving opioid therapy, and the Pain Assessment and Documentation Tool (PADT) was designed to address these shortcomings [46]. The PADT is a clinician-directed interview, with most sections (e.g., analgesia, activities of daily living, adverse events) consisting of questions asked of the patient. However, the potential aberrant drug-related behavior section must be completed by the physician based on his or her observations of the patient.

The Brief Intervention Tool

The Brief Intervention Tool is a 26-item, "yes-no," patient-administered questionnaire used to identify early signs of opioid abuse or addiction. The items assess the extent of problems related to drug use in several areas, including drug use-related functional impairment [22].

Urine Drug Tests

UDTs may be used to monitor adherence to the prescribed treatment plan and to detect unsanctioned drug use. They should be used more often in patients receiving addiction therapy, but clinical judgment is the ultimate guide to testing frequency (Table 2) [47]. The CDC recommends clinicians should use UDT before starting opioid therapy and consider UDT at least annually to assess for prescribed medications as well as other controlled prescription drugs and illicit drugs [10]. However, this recommendation was based on low-quality evidence that indicates little confidence in the effect estimate.


Monitoring ToolPatient Risk Level
Urine drug testEvery 1 to 2 yearsEvery 6 to 12 monthsEvery 3 to 6 months
State prescription drug monitoring programTwice per yearThree times per yearFour times per year

Initially, testing involves the use of class-specific immunoassay drug panels [1]. If necessary, this may be followed with gas chromatography/mass spectrometry for specific drug or metabolite detection. It is important that testing identifies the specific drug rather than the drug class, and the prescribed opioid should be included in the screen. Any abnormalities should be confirmed with a laboratory toxicologist or clinical pathologist. Immunoassay may be used point-of-care for "on-the-spot" therapy changes, but the high error rate prevents its use in major clinical decisions except with liquid chromatography coupled to tandem mass spectrometry confirmation.

Urine test results suggesting opioid misuse should be discussed with the patient using a positive, supportive approach. The test results and the patient discussion should be documented.


It is important to seek consultation or patient referral when input or care from a pain, psychiatry, addiction, or mental health specialist is necessary. Clinicians who prescribe opioids should become familiar with opioid addiction treatment options (including licensed opioid treatment programs for methadone and office-based opioid treatment for buprenorphine) if referral is needed [1].

Ideally, providers should be able to refer patients with active substance abuse who require pain treatment to an addiction professional or specialized program. In reality, these specialized resources are scarce or non-existent in many areas [1]. Therefore, each provider will need to decide whether the risks of continuing opioid treatment while a patient is using illicit drugs outweigh the benefits to the patient in terms of pain control and improved function [48].


As noted, documentation is a necessary aspect of all patient care, but it is of particular importance when opioid prescribing is involved. All clinicians should maintain accurate, complete, and up-to-date medical records, including all written or telephoned prescription orders for opioid analgesics and other controlled substances, all written instructions to the patient for medication use, and the name, telephone number, and address of the patient's pharmacy [1]. Good medical records demonstrate that a service was provided to the patient and that the service was medically necessary. Regardless of the treatment outcome, thorough medical records protect the prescriber.


Patients and caregivers should be counseled regarding the safe use and disposal of opioids. As part of its mandatory Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) for extended-release/long-acting opioids, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has developed a patient counseling document with information on the patient's specific medications, instructions for emergency situations and incomplete pain control, and warnings not to share medications or take them unprescribed [16]. A copy of this form may be accessed online at http://www.fda.gov/downloads/ForIndustry/UserFees/PrescriptionDrugUserFee/UCM361110.htm.

When prescribing opioids, clinicians should provide patients with the following information [16]:

  • Product-specific information

  • Taking the opioid as prescribed

  • Importance of dosing regimen adherence, managing missed doses, and prescriber contact if pain is not controlled

  • Warning and rationale to never break or chew/crush tablets or cut or tear patches prior to use

  • Warning and rationale to avoid other central nervous system depressants, such as sedative-hypnotics, anxiolytics, alcohol, or illicit drugs

  • Warning not to abruptly halt or reduce the opioid without physician oversight of safe tapering when discontinuing

  • The potential of serious side effects or death

  • Risk factors, signs, and symptoms of overdose and opioid-induced respiratory depression, gastrointestinal obstruction, and allergic reactions

  • The risks of falls, using heavy machinery, and driving

  • Warning and rationale to never share an opioid analgesic

  • Rationale for secure opioid storage

  • Warning to protect opioids from theft

  • Instructions for disposal of unneeded opioids, based on product-specific disposal information

There are no universal recommendations for the proper disposal of unused opioids, and patients are rarely advised of what to do with unused or expired medications [49]. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, most medications that are no longer necessary or have expired should be removed from their containers, mixed with undesirable substances (e.g., cat litter, used coffee grounds), and put into an impermeable, nondescript container (e.g., disposable container with a lid or a sealed bag) before throwing in the trash [50]. Any personal information should be obscured or destroyed. The FDA recommends that certain medications, including oxycodone/acetaminophen (Percocet), oxycodone (OxyContin tablets), and transdermal fentanyl (Duragesic Transdermal System), be flushed down the toilet instead of thrown in the trash [50]. Patients should be advised to flush prescription drugs down the toilet only if the label or accompanying patient information specifically instructs doing so.

The American College of Preventive Medicine has established best practices to avoid diversion of unused drugs and educate patients regarding drug disposal [49]:

  • Consider writing prescriptions in smaller amounts.

  • Educate patients about safe storing and disposal practices.

  • Give drug-specific information to patients about the temperature at which they should store their medications. Generally, the bathroom is not the best storage place. It is damp and moist, potentially resulting in potency decrements, and accessible to many people, including children and teens, resulting in potential theft or safety issues.

  • Ask patients not to advertise that they are taking these types of medications and to keep their medications secure.

  • Refer patients to community "take back" services overseen by law enforcement that collect controlled substances, seal them in plastic bags, and store them in a secure location until they can be incinerated. Contact your state law enforcement agency or visit http://www.dea.gov to determine if a program is available in your area.


The decision to continue or end opioid prescribing should be based on a physician-patient discussion of the anticipated benefits and risks. An opioid should be discontinued with resolution of the pain condition, intolerable side effects, inadequate analgesia, lack of improvement in quality of life despite dose titration, deteriorating function, or significant aberrant medication use [1,10].

Clinicians should provide physically dependent patients with a safely structured tapering protocol. Withdrawal is managed by the prescribing physician or referral to an addiction specialist. Patients should be reassured that opioid discontinuation is not the end of treatment; continuation of pain management will be undertaken with other modalities through direct care or referral.

As a side note, cannabis use by chronic pain patients receiving opioid therapy has traditionally been viewed as a treatment agreement violation that is grounds for termination of opioid therapy. However, some now argue against cannabis use as a rationale for termination or substantial treatment and monitoring changes, especially considering the increasing legalization of medical use at the state level [48].


For patients who are not proficient in English, it is important that information regarding the risks associated with the use of opioids and available resources be provided in their native language, if possible. When there is an obvious disconnect in the communication process between the practitioner and patient due to the patient's lack of proficiency in the English language, an interpreter is required. Interpreters can be a valuable resource to help bridge the communication and cultural gap between patients and practitioners. Interpreters are more than passive agents who translate and transmit information back and forth from party to party. When they are enlisted and treated as part of the interdisciplinary clinical team, they serve as cultural brokers who ultimately enhance the clinical encounter. In any case in which information regarding treatment options and medication/treatment measures are being provided, the use of an interpreter should be considered. Print materials are also available in many languages, and these should be offered whenever necessary.


Research has more closely defined the location of prescribed opioid diversion into illicit use in the supply chain from the manufacturer to the distributor, retailer, and the end user (the pain patient). This information carries with it substantial public policy and regulatory implications. The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health asked non-medical users of prescription opioids how they obtained their most recently used drugs [51]. Among persons 12 years of age or older, 40.5% obtained their prescription opioids from a friend or relative for free, 34.0% got them through a prescription from one doctor (vs. 17.3% in 2009–2010), 9.4% bought them from a friend or relative, and 3.8% took them from a friend or relative without asking [51]. Less frequent sources included a drug dealer or other stranger (4.9%); multiple doctors (1.7%); and theft from a doctor's office, clinic, hospital, or pharmacy (0.7%) (vs. 0.2% in 2009–2010) [51].

As discussed, UDTs can give insight into patients who are misusing opioids. A random sample of UDT results from 800 pain patients treated at a Veterans Affairs facility found that 25.2% were negative for the prescribed opioid while 19.5% were positive for an illicit drug/unreported opioid [52]. Negative UDT results for the prescribed opioid do not necessarily indicate diversion, but may indicate the patient halted his/her use due to side effects, lack of efficacy, or pain remission. The concern arises over the increasingly stringent climate surrounding clinical decision-making regarding aberrant UDT results and that a negative result for the prescribed opioid or a positive UDT may serve as the pretense to terminate a patient rather than guide him/her into addiction treatment or an alternative pain management program [53].

In addition to aberrant urine screens, there are certain behaviors that are suggestive of an emerging opioid use disorder. The most suggestive behaviors are [48,54,55]:

  • Selling medications

  • Prescription forgery or alteration

  • Injecting medications meant for oral use

  • Obtaining medications from nonmedical sources

  • Resisting medication change despite worsening function or significant negative effects

  • Loss of control over alcohol use

  • Using illegal drugs or non-prescribed controlled substances

  • Recurrent episodes of:

    • Prescription loss or theft

    • Obtaining opioids from other providers in violation of a treatment agreement

    • Unsanctioned dose escalation

    • Running out of medication and requesting early refills

Behaviors with a lower level of evidence for their association with opioid misuse include [48,54,55]:

  • Aggressive demands for more drug

  • Asking for specific medications

  • Stockpiling medications during times when pain is less severe

  • Using pain medications to treat other symptoms

  • Reluctance to decrease opioid dosing once stable

  • In the earlier stages of treatment:

    • Increasing medication dosing without provider permission

    • Obtaining prescriptions from sources other than the pain provider

    • Sharing or borrowing similar medications from friends/family


There are a number of actions that prescribers and dispensers can take to prevent or intervene in cases of drug diversion. These actions can be generally categorized based on the various mechanisms of drug diversion.

Prevention is the best approach to addressing drug diversion. As noted, the most common source of nonmedical use of prescribed opioids is from a family member or friend, through sharing, buying, or stealing. To avoid drug sharing among patients, healthcare professionals should educate patients on the dangers of sharing opioids and stress that "doing prescription drugs" is the same as "using street drugs" [49]. In addition, patients should be aware of the many options available to treat chronic pain aside from opioids. To prevent theft, patients should be advised to keep medications in a private place and to refrain from telling others about the medications being used.

Communication among providers and pharmacies can help to avoid inappropriate attainment of prescription drugs through "doctor shopping." Prescribers should keep complete and up-to-date records for all controlled substance prescribing. When possible, electronic medical records should be integrated between pharmacies, hospitals, and managed care organizations [49]. If available, it is also best practice to periodically request a report from the state's prescription reporting program to evaluate the prescribing of opioids to your patients by other providers [49].

When dealing with patients suspected of drug seeking/diversion, first inquire about prescription, over-the-counter, and illicit drug use and perform a thorough examination [49,56]. Pill counting and/or UDT may be necessary to investigate possible drug misuse. Photo identification or other form of identification and social security number may be required prior to dispensing the drug, with proof of identity documented fully. If a patient is displaying suspicious behaviors, consider prescribing for limited quantities [56].

If a patient is found to be abusing prescribed opioids, this is considered a violation of the treatment agreement and the clinician must make the decision whether or not to continue the therapeutic relationship. If the relationship is terminated, it must be done ethically and legally. The most significant issue is the risk of patient abandonment, which is defined as ending a relationship with a patient without consideration of continuity of care and without providing notice to the patient. The American Medical Association Code of Ethics states that physicians have an obligation to support continuity of care for their patients. While physicians have the option of withdrawing from a case, they should notify the patient (or authorized decision maker) long enough in advance to permit the patient to secure another physician and facilitate transfer of care when appropriate [57]. Patients may also be given resources and/or recommendations to help them locate a new clinician.

Patients with chronic pain found to have an ongoing substance abuse problem or addiction should be referred to a pain specialist for continued treatment. Theft or loss of controlled substances is reported to the DEA. If drug diversion has occurred, the activity should be documented and a report to law enforcement should be made [58].


In response to the rising incidence in prescription opioid abuse, addiction, diversion, and overdose since the late 1990s, the FDA has mandated opioid-specific REMS to reduce the potential negative patient and societal effects of prescribed opioids. Other elements of opioid risk mitigation include FDA partnering with other governmental agencies, state professional licensing boards, and societies of healthcare professionals to help improve prescriber knowledge of appropriate and safe opioid prescribing and safe home storage and disposal of unused medication [24].

Several regulations and programs at the state level have been enacted in an effort to reduce prescription opioid abuse, diversion, and overdose, including [59]:

  • Physical examination required prior to prescribing

  • Tamper-resistant prescription forms

  • Pain clinic regulatory oversight

  • Prescription limits

  • Prohibition from obtaining controlled substance prescriptions from multiple providers

  • Patient identification required before dispensing

  • Immunity from prosecution or mitigation at sentencing for individuals seeking assistance during an overdose


The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is responsible for formulating federal standards for the handling of controlled substances. In 2011, the DEA began requiring every state to implement electronic databases that track prescribing habits, referred to as PDMPs. Specific policies regarding controlled substances are administered at the state level [60].

According to the DEA, drugs, substances, and certain chemicals used to make drugs are classified into five distinct categories or schedules depending upon the drug's acceptable medical use and the drug's abuse or dependency potential [61]. The abuse rate is a determinate factor in the scheduling of the drug; for example, Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychologic and/or physical dependence.


Most states have established laws and rules governing the prescribing and dispensing of opioid analgesics. It is each prescriber's responsibility to have knowledge of and adhere to the laws and rules of the state in which he or she prescribes.

An excerpt from the Arkansas Code rules and regulations relating to the regulation of controlled substances is available by clicking here.

An excerpt from the New Mexico Administrative Code Title 16, Chapter 10, Part 14: Management of Pain and Other Conditions with Controlled Substances is available by clicking here.

An excerpt from the New York Code, Rules, and Regulations relating to the regulation of controlled substances is available by clicking here.

Information on use of the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System (VPMS) is available by clicking here.


Opioid analgesic medications can bring substantial relief to patients suffering from pain. However, the inappropriate use, abuse, and diversion of prescription drugs in America, particularly prescription opioids, has increased dramatically in recent years and has been identified as a national public health epidemic. A set of clinical tools, guidelines, and recommendations are now available for prescribers who treat patients with opioids. By implementing these tools, the clinician can effectively address issues related to the clinical management of opioid prescribing, opioid risk management, regulations surrounding the prescribing of opioids, and problematic opioid use by patients. In doing so, healthcare professionals are more likely to achieve a balance between the benefits and risks of opioid prescribing, optimize patient attainment of therapeutic goals, and avoid the risk to patient outcome, public health, and viability of their own practice imposed by deficits in knowledge.

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Evidence-Based Practice Recommendations Citations

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