SALT LAKE CITY — The proportion of patients prescribed opioids at the Veterans Medical Center in Salt Lake City has dropped significantly since 2012, according to data released this week by the federal government.
Of all patients who receive a prescription from the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center in 2017, 13 percent were prescribed opioids, compared to 22 percent in 2012, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reported Thursday.
The federal agency said in a release that, with the release of that data for its hospitals around the country, it became "the only health-care system in the country to post information on its opioid-prescribing rates."
"One thing the VA is trying to do is make services accessible, but also be very transparent," said Jamie Clinton-Lont, who is the director of the primary care pain education and opioid monitoring program at the Salt Lake hospital, as well as the women veterans program manager there. "Making it public is important so the public and veterans know that the VA is in good faith doing what they say they're doing."
Numerous efforts have been underway in recent years to better educate patients about the risks of opioids, introduce other ways to treat pain, and monitor those who may be attempting to get painkiller prescriptions from multiple doctors, said Clinton-Lont.
"The VA was (at one point) one of the highest prescribers of opioids medications nationally," she said. "It was thought that opioid medications would be acceptable to treat pain. And data and research have come out suggesting that in fact it only takes care of about 30 percent of a person's chronic pain."
"In (coming to believe) we need to have more of a holistic approach with or without opioids, we have seen providers prescribe less."
For instance, Clinton-Lont said, more is being done at the hospital to explore chiropractic pain management alternatives, as well as other practices such as acupuncture, tai chi, yoga and mindfulness exercises.
Veteran Affairs said more than 99 percent of its facilities have shown a decrease since 2012 in the percentage of patients prescribed opioids among all patients with prescriptions.
While that number dropped by more than a third of its 2012 total at Salt Lake's Veteran Affairs hospital, the facility ranked behind 55 others among 146 total. However, the federal agency issued a caution about putting too much stock in direct comparisons between facilities, saying "the needs and conditions of veterans may be different at each facility."
"You have varying patient populations at higher lower risk of suicide from one facility to the next, or higher or lower risk … of PTSD or military sexual trauma," Clinton-Lont said.
The newly released data is positive, but doesn't represent a catch-all as it pertains to reducing the number of opioids prescribed, Clinton-Lont added. For example, she said, among patients who do receive opioid prescriptions, there are special efforts at the Salt Lake facility to help reduce the regimen of those who are taking 200 milligram equivalents of painkillers per day.
"The goal is to reduce the risk of accidental overdose," Clinton-Lont said.
The Veterans Affairs release also cautioned that, despite declining numbers of patients being given opioids, for many veterans who suffer from chronic pain, receiving an opioid prescription may continue to "be necessary medically."