Cross-Sectional Study Finds Chronic Skin Conditions Have Highest Opioid Prescribing Rates

Jeff Craven

June 15, 2021

Opioids were prescribed most often for vitiligo, hemangioma, pemphigus, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis, according to a study that used national ambulatory care data to evaluate pain medication use at dermatology visits.

"Overall, opioid prescribing rates among dermatologists were low. However, dermatologists should remain aware of risk factors for long-term opioid use and consider using nonnarcotic or nonpharmacologic interventions when possible," Sarah P. Pourali, a medical student at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, said at the annual meeting of the Society for Investigative Dermatology, where she presented the results.

Pourali said that although Mohs surgery and dermatologic procedures are the focus of "much of the literature" concerning opioid use in dermatology, there are limited data on medication prescribing patterns for other skin conditions treated by dermatologists.

She and her colleagues performed a cross-sectional study using data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) from 2009 to 2016 on 288,462,610 weighted dermatology visits. The researchers used International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision (ICD-9) and ICD-10 codes to identify dermatologic diseases. They also identified and grouped oral pain medication into the following categories: opiate analgesics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, acetaminophen, and gabapentin. A linear regression analysis was used to evaluate pain medicine prescribing each year, and the researchers used a logistic regression analysis to explore how opiate prescriptions were connected to patient clinical characteristics. The analysis was adjusted for age, gender, race, ethnicity, and region.

Overall, most dermatology visits were for patients older than 65 years (36.2%) and 45-64 years old (32.1%). Over half of the dermatologist visits were for women (56.4%) and most (92.2%) visits were for patients who were White (5.1 % were for patients who were Black); most were non-Hispanic or Latino (93.5%). Most dermatology visits were in the South (35.4%) and West (25.2%), followed by the Northeast (21.9%) and Midwest (17.5%).

Opioids were prescribed in 1.3% of the visits, Pourali said. In addition, 4.7% of visits included an NSAID prescription, 0.7% an acetaminophen prescription, and 0.6% a gabapentin prescription.

Dermatologic procedure visits accounted for 43.1% of opioid prescriptions, she noted. The most common skin conditions for which opioids were prescribed included vitiligo (10.3%), hemangioma (3.8%), pemphigus (3.6%), atopic dermatitis (3.4%), and psoriasis (2.5%).

Although patients older than 65 years accounted for 36.2% of visits to dermatologists, 58.5% of opioids prescribed by dermatologists were for patients in this age group. "We hypothesize that this may be due to a higher proportion of older patients requiring skin cancer surgeries where a lot of opioids are prescribed within dermatology," Pourali said.

The highest population-adjusted prescription rates for opiates were in the Northeast and Western regions of the United States, which "partially corroborates" previous studies that have found "higher rates of opioid prescribing in the southern and western U.S.," she noted.

When evaluating risk-factors for long-term opiate use, Pourali and colleagues found opioids were also prescribed in 13.2% of visits where a benzodiazepine was prescribed (adjusted odds ratio, 8.17; 95% confidence interval, 5.3-12.7), 8.4% of visits where the patient had a substance abuse disorder (adjusted OR, 9.40; 95% CI, 2.0-44.4), 5.2% of visits with a patient who had depression (adjusted OR, 3.28; 95% CI, 2.0-5.4), and 2.4% of visits with a patient who used tobacco (adjusted OR, 1.09; 95% CI, 1.0-1.1).

Consider Nonopioid Postoperative Pain Management Options

In an interview, Sailesh Konda, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology and director of Mohs surgery and surgical dermatology at the University of Florida, Gainesville, who was not involved with the research, noted the finding in the study that vitiligo, hemangioma, pemphigus, AD, and psoriasis were diagnoses with the highest rates of opioid prescription was surprising. "In general, these are conditions that are not routinely managed with opioids," he said.

NAMCS contains a primary diagnosis field and space for four additional diagnoses such as chronic conditions, as well as thirty fields for medications. "If an opioid was prescribed at a visit, it could have been prescribed for any of the diagnoses related to the visit," Konda said. "Additionally, for those opioid prescriptions associated with dermatologic procedures, it would have been helpful to have a breakdown of the specific procedures."

Konda compared these results to a recent study of opioid prescribing patterns in the dermatology Medicare population, which found that 93.9% of the top 1% of opioid prescribers were dermatologists working in a surgical practice.

He said that recommendations for opioid prescribing should be developed for general dermatology as they have been for Mohs surgery and dermatologic surgery. For dermatologists currently prescribing opioids, he recommended monitoring prescribing patterns and to "consider nonopioid interventions, such as acetaminophen plus ibuprofen, which has been found to effectively control postoperative pain with fewer complications."

Pourali reports no relevant financial disclosures. Her coauthors included the principal investigator, April Armstrong, MD, MPH, professor of dermatology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Konda reports no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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