WEDNESDAY, Nov. 13 (HealthDay News) -- The use of powerful narcotic painkillers is common among U.S. hospital patients who have not had surgery, a new study finds.
The finding comes amid growing concern about the overuse of these narcotics -- such as morphine, Oxycontin and fentanyl -- which are associated with high rates of addiction and overdose.
The rate of fatal overdoses from these drugs nearly quadrupled over the past decade and it's estimated that more than 14,000 Americans die each year from such overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In this study, researchers analyzed data from more than 1 million admissions to 286 hospitals around the country between mid-2009 and mid-2010, and found that more than 50 percent of patients who did not have surgery were prescribed narcotics, often at very high doses.
More than half of the nonsurgical patients who were given these painkillers were still receiving them on the day they were discharged from the hospital, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center team said.
They also found widespread regional variation in the use of these narcotics in nonsurgical hospital patients, with a 37 percent difference between the highest (West) and lowest (Northeast) prescribing regions.
Patients who received narcotics at hospitals that prescribe them more often were at greater risk for serious complications related to these drugs than those who received the drugs at hospitals that prescribe them less often, according to the study published online Nov. 13 in the Journal of Hospital Medicine.
"In other words, hospitals that used these drugs more frequently did so less safely," study author Dr. Shoshana Herzig, a hospitalist in Beth Israel's division of general medicine and primary care and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, said in a medical center news release.
"Taken together, our findings really emphasize the importance of good communication between inpatient and outpatient providers," Herzig said.
"It's important that primary care physicians know what medications their patients have been exposed to during hospitalizations," she added. "We hope this information will prompt hospitals to take a closer look at their own opioid-prescribing practices."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers a guide to the safe use of pain medications.