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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Decline in Hydrocodone/Acetaminophen Prescriptions in Emergency Departments in the Veterans Health Administration Between 2009 to 2015


Introduction: The purpose of the study was to measure national prescribing patterns for hydrocodone/acetaminophen among veterans seeking emergency medical care, and to see if patterns have changed since this medication became a Schedule II controlled substance.

Methods: We conducted a retrospective cohort study of emergency department (ED) visits within the Veterans Health Administration (VA) between January 2009 and June 2015. We looked at demographics, comorbidities, utilization measures, diagnoses, and prescriptions.

Results: During the study period, 1,709,545 individuals participated in 6,270,742 ED visits and received 471,221 prescriptions for hydrocodone/acetaminophen (7.5% of all visits). The most common diagnosis associated with a prescription was back pain. Prescriptions peaked at 80,776 in 2011 (8.7% of visits), and declined to 35,031 (5.6%) during the first half of 2015 (r=‒0.99, p<0.001). The percentage of hydrocodone/acetaminophen prescriptions limited to 12 pills increased from 22% (13,949) in 2009 to 31% (11,026) in the first half of 2015. A prescription was more likely written for patients with a painscore≥7 (OR 3.199, CI [3.192‒3.205]), a musculoskeletal (OR 1.622, CI [1.615‒1.630]) or soft tissue(OR 1.656, CI [1.649‒1.664]) diagnosis, and those below the first quartile for total ED visits (OR 1.282, CI [1.271‒1.293]) and total outpatient ICD 9 codes (OR 1.843, CI [1.833‒1.853]).

Conclusion: Hydrocodone/acetaminophen is the most frequently prescribed ED medication in the VA. The rate of prescribing has decreased since 2011, with the rate of decline remaining unchanged after it was classified as a Schedule II controlled substance. The proportion of prescriptions falling within designated guidelines has increased but is not at goal.

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