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How has prescribing of opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
This cross-sectional study analyzed prescriptions from 90 420 353 patients and found that from March 18 to May 19, 2020, total morphine milligram equivalents of opioid analgesics prescribed to existing patients followed prepandemic trends; prescriptions to opioid-naive patients were 34% below projected levels but rebounded by August 2020. Prescribing of buprenorphine for opioid use disorder followed prepandemic trends for existing patients, while prescriptions to new patients were 18% below projected levels, rebounding to 90% of projected levels by August 2020.
This study suggests that prescriptions for opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder decreased among new, but not existing, patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted medical care, impacting prescribing of opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder. Understanding these patterns can help address barriers to care.
To evaluate how prescribing of opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic among both new and existing patients.
Design, Setting, and Participants
In this cross-sectional study, use of opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder from March 18 to September 1, 2020, was projected using a national database of retail prescriptions from January 1, 2018, to March 3, 2020. Actual prescribing was compared with projected levels for all, existing, and new patients.
The data include prescriptions to patients independent of insurance status or type and cover 90% of retail prescriptions, 70% of mail-order prescriptions, and 70% of nursing home prescriptions.
Main Outcomes and Measures
Prescriptions for opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder. Outcomes included total number of prescriptions, total morphine milligram equivalents, mean morphine milligram equivalents per prescription, mean dispensed units per prescription, and number of patients filling prescriptions.
A total of 452 691 261 prescriptions for opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder were analyzed for 90 420 353 patients (50 921 535 female patients [56%]; mean [SD] age, 49  years). From March 18 to May 19, 2020, 1877 million total morphine milligram equivalents of opioid analgesics were prescribed weekly vs 1843 million projected, a ratio of 102% (95% prediction interval [PI], 94%-111%; P = .71). The weekly number of opioid-naive patients receiving opioids was 370 051 vs 564 929 projected, or 66% of projected (95% PI, 63%-68%; P < .001). Prescribing of buprenorphine was as projected for existing patients, while the number of new patients receiving buprenorphine weekly was 9865 vs 12 008 projected, or 82% (95% PI, 76%-88%; P < .001). From May 20 to September 1, 2020, opioid prescribing for new patients returned to 100% of projected (95% PI, 96%-104%; P = .95), while the number of new patients receiving buprenorphine weekly was 10 436 vs 11 613 projected, or 90% (95% PI, 83%-97%; P = .009).
Conclusions and Relevance
In this cross-sectional study, existing patients receiving opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder generally maintained access to these medications during the COVID-19 pandemic. Opioid prescriptions for opioid-naive patients decreased briefly and then rebounded, while initiation of buprenorphine remained at a low rate through August 2020. Reductions in treatment entry may be associated with increased overdose deaths.
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Accepted for Publication: February 25, 2021.
Published: April 15, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.6147
Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2021 Currie JM et al. JAMA Network Open.
Corresponding Author: Janet M. Currie, PhD, Center for Health and Wellbeing, Princeton University, 185A Jules Romo Rabinowitz Building, Princeton, NJ 08540 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Author Contributions: Dr Currie had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.
Concept and design: All authors.
Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: All authors.
Drafting of the manuscript: All authors.
Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: All authors.
Statistical analysis: All authors.
Obtained funding: Currie.
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Zhang reported that he is an evaluator and federal contractor for the Veterans Health Administration, Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. No other disclosures were reported.
Disclaimer: The statements, findings, conclusions, views, and opinions contained and expressed in this article are based on data obtained under license from IQVIA’s Human Data Science Research Collaborative and use the Longitudinal Prescription LRx TM, January 1, 2018, to September 1, 2020, IQVIA Inc. All Rights Reserved. The statements, findings, conclusions, views, and opinions contained and expressed herein are not necessarily those of IQVIA Inc or any of its affiliated or subsidiary entities.
Additional Contributions: We thank Allen Campbell, BS, Washington State University, Customer Support IQVIA, for facilitating access to these data. He received no payment from the authors.
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