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

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Background: 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.
Methods: 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.
Results: 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.
Conclusions: 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.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1174
Number of pages11
JournalBMC Public Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jun 2021


  • Prescription opioids
  • Overdose
  • Analgesics
  • Comorbidities
  • General practice
  • Polypharmacy


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