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Credit: Yosef Robele

A Penn Medicine study has found that opioid prescriptions for eye surgeries more than doubled between 2000 to 2014. 

The study, published this month in JAMA Ophthalmology, found that the percentage of eye surgery patients who receive and fill opioid prescriptions has steadily increased from 1.2 percent in 2000–2001 to 2.5 percent in 2014. These increases were consistent across six separate ocular specialties. 

“Each subspecialty is completely unrelated to the other, and yet we saw opioid rates rise almost identically through the years in every single category,” senior author and Penn ophthalmology professor Brian VanderBeek said in a press release.

The trend is surprising because innovations in the field have made eye surgeries less painful and invasive across the board. Because of this, scientists expected a decrease in opioid usage as opposed to the sharp increase they observed. 

To better understand the trends, the research team compared opioid prescription fills with demographic data. They found that patients in the Northeast were least likely to fill opioid prescriptions while those from the Mountain states were most likely, possibly due to state-specific regulations. Blacks, males, and those without a bachelor’s degree were also more likely to fill opioid prescriptions. 

Many Penn researchers have also conducted research on opioids in recent years. Mark Neuman, an anesthesiology and critical care professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, found that opioid prescription fillings, as well as the dosage of opioids prescribed, have increased for all types of procedures. A Penn Vet study concluded that pet opioid prescriptions have also climbed in the past decade. 

Such discoveries reflect a concerning reality about the state of opioid usage both locally and nationally. The Philadelphia Department of Health reports that of 1,217 overdoses that occurred in the city in 2017, 1,074 involved opioids. In January 2018, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolfe declared the state’s widespread opioid and heroin abuse a statewide disaster emergency

In response to this crisis, the University launched the Penn Addiction Center of Excellence this August to serve as a hub for opioid research. Funded by a 4.5 billion-dollar grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this program aims to improve both the understanding and treatment of opioid addiction. 

VanderBeek said the results raise questions on what ophthalmologists can do to combat the opioid crisis. 

“Whenever you have an epidemic, I think it’s reasonable to ask what you can do to curb it. Even if eye surgeries are a minor source of the problem, if we can limit some of the exposure to opioids, in light of the national emergency, we are obligated to do what we can,” VanderBeek said. “We don’t want people to be in pain, but we also don’t want to continue to fuel the problem if we can avoid it.”