Seven times more opioid prescriptions in Canada and U.S. than Sweden: study

Amount of opioid dispensed was significantly higher in U.S. compared with Canada and Sweden

Prescription pills containing oxycodone. (The Canadian Press)

Prescription pills containing oxycodone. (The Canadian Press)

Patients in Canada and the United States filled opioid prescriptions after minor surgery at a rate that was seven times higher than those in Sweden, reveals a new study that suggests the addictive pain drugs could be used more judiciously in North America.

Researchers examined prescriptions filled by individuals in the first week after undergoing one of four low-risk operations in the three countries. Just 11 per cent of patients in Sweden filled an opioid prescription, compared with 79 per cent in Canada and 76 per cent in the U.S.

Among those who filled an opioid prescription, the amount of opioid dispensed was significantly higher in the U.S. compared with Canada and Sweden, adds the study published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open.

“I think there’s a lot of data, including this study, that suggests that patients are getting more opioids than they need for even just minor surgical procedures,” said Dr. Karim Ladha, a clinician-scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital and co-author of the study, in an interview.

“The concern is really that we’re contributing to a supply of opioids in the community.”

Further, the study raises the question of whether opioids are necessary for pain management after surgery, Ladha said. Researchers didn’t have information about the post-operative pain experiences of patients in this study, but it appears many in Sweden were “getting by” without opioids after the same procedures, he said.

“Do we actually need them? While this study can’t answer this question, it’s driving what we’re going to do in the future, which is a randomized controlled trial to really test this hypothesis,” he said, adding he was in the process of applying for a grant for further research.

The study sample consisted of about 129,000 patients in the U.S., 85,000 in Canada and 9,800 in Sweden, between the ages of 18 and 64 who underwent gallbladder removal, appendix removal, meniscus repair or breast lump removal.

RELATED: Decriminalizing drugs the next steps in fighting B.C.’s opioid crisis, top doctor says

Laura Kane, The Canadian Press

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