As part of any treatment plan, providers must educate patients on the prescription opioid, its safe use (including dosage, frequency of use, expected therapeutic effects, risks, and side effects); its potential interactions with other drugs and alcohol; its proper storage according to manufacturer instructions; and the proper disposal of the medication. As we have mentioned, diversion of opioids by family members, caregivers, or visitors can be a serious problem with serious consequences for the patient, who should be using the drug as directed, and for the nonmedical user, who may be risking injury or accidental death by illegally using a drug not prescribed.
It is imperative that patients receive education so that they may give informed consent to the treatment plan recommended by the physician.
What Is Informed Consent?
Health providers have the responsibility of informing patients about opioid pain medications. The Federation of State Medical Boards specifies that informed consent documents typically address the following points:
- The potential risks and anticipated benefits of chronic opioid therapy.
- Potential side effects (both short- and long-term) of the medication, such as constipation and cognitive impairment.
- The likelihood that tolerance to and physical dependence on the medication will develop.
- The risk of drug interactions and over-sedation.
- The risk of impaired motor skills (affecting driving and other tasks).
- The risk of opioid misuse, dependence, addiction, and overdose.
- The limited evidence as to the benefit of long-term opioid therapy.
- The clinician’s prescribing policies and expectations, including the number and frequency of prescription refills, as well as the clinician’s policy on early refills and replacement of lost or stolen medications.
- Specific reasons for which drug therapy may be changed or discontinued (including violation of the policies and agreements spelled out in the treatment agreement) (FSMB, 2013)
Patients need to understand that opioid pain medications work to relieve pain by binding to specific receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract. But stimulating the receptors, or reward centers, in the brain can also affect other body systems, such as those responsible for regulating mood, breathing, and blood pressure.
Signs of Overdose
Opioids can cause pleasure, nausea, vomiting, allergic reaction, and even overdose, which can cause breathing and heartbeat to slow or stop. Opioids may significantly reduce pain, but they may not eradicate all pain.
Life-threatening overdose can occur when:
- A patient accidentally takes an extra dose or doses
- A patient accidentally takes doses more frequently than prescribed
- A patient deliberately takes more medication than prescribed
- A patient takes the medication in combination with other drugs or alcohol
- Any person who is not prescribed the medication takes it
Patients and their caregivers must be taught that an overdose of opioid pain medication is an emergency. If an overdose is suspected, immediately call 911. Signs of overdose include:
- Slow or stopped breathing
- Slow or stopped heartbeat
- Limp body
- Extremely pale and/or clammy face
- Blue or purple lips or fingernails
- Vomiting or emitting gurgling noises
- Cannot be awakened
- Unable to speak
Signs of Overmedication
Overmedication is a condition that may progress to life-threatening overdose. Signs of overmedication include:
- Slow or shallow breathing
- Slow heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
- Unusual sleepiness, nodding off
- Slurred speech
- Behavior resembling intoxication
- Pupils pinpoint size
- Difficulty awakening from sleep
Patient education must include the following points:
- Take medicine only if it has been prescribed by a doctor.
- Do not take more medicine or take it more often than instructed.
- Call a doctor if pain gets worse.
- Never mix pain medicines with alcohol, sleeping pills, or any illicit substance.
- Store medicine in a safe place where children and pets cannot reach it.
- Know the signs of overdose and how to use naloxone to keep it from becoming fatal.
- Teach family and friends how to respond to an overdose.
- Dispose of unused medication properly. (SAMHSA, 2014d)
The use of a patient–clinician agreement helps to reinforce patient education. The FDA has convened a working group to develop tools for patients and prescribers when considering opioid analgesics for the treatment of pain. In 2012 the working group developed a model Opioid Patient-Prescriber Agreement (PPA) that is patient-focused to increase awareness of risks and benefits of opioid analgesics and serve to emphasize the responsibilities of both patient and prescriber (FDA, 2014). Although the FDA’s Safe Use Initiative Opioid Patient-Prescriber Agreement is in progress, at the time of this writing it was not yet finalized. Other agreements are available online.