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We Need to Talk About Codeine: an Implementation Study to reduce the number of Emergency Department patients discharged on high-strength co-codamol using the Behaviour Change Wheel


Background The crisis of prescription opioid addiction in the USA is well-documented. Though opioid consumption per capita is lower in the UK, prescribing has increased dramatically in recent decades with an associated increase in deaths from prescription opioid overdose. At one Scottish Emergency Department high rates of prescribing of take-home co-codamol (30/500 mg) were observed, including for conditions where opioids are not recommended by national guidelines. An Implementation Science approach was adopted to investigate this.

Methods A Behaviour Change Wheel analysis suggested several factors contributing to high opioid prescribing: poor awareness of codeine addiction risk, poor knowledge of NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines on common painful conditions, mistaken assumptions about patient expectations and ready access to a large stock of take-home co-codamol. Based on this analysis a combined Education/Persuasion intervention was implemented over a 1-month period (January 2019) reaching 93% of prescribers. An Environmental Restructuring intervention was introduced at 4 months, and co-codamol prescriptions were monitored over a 12-month follow-up period. Unplanned re-attendances and complaints related to analgesia were monitored as balancing measures.

Results The Education/Persuasion intervention was associated with a 59% reduction in co-codamol prescribing that was maintained over 12 months. The Environmental Restructuring intervention was not associated with any further reduction in prescribing. No increase in unplanned re-attendances occurred during the study period and no complaints were received relating to pain control.

Conclusions The increasing incidence of prescription opioid addiction in the UK suggests the need for all clinicians who write opioid prescriptions to re-evaluate their practice. This study suggests that knowledge of addiction risk and prescribing guidelines is poor among Emergency Department prescribers. We show that a rapid and sustained reduction in prescribing of take-home opioids is feasible in a UK Emergency Department, and that this reduction was not associated with any increase in unplanned re-attendances or complaints related to analgesia.

  • analgesia/pain control
  • quality improvement
  • drug abuse

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