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Too Many Children Receive Opioids for Pneumonia and Sinusitis


A significant percentage of children receive opioids and systemic corticosteroids for pneumonia and sinusitis despite guidelines, according to an analysis of 2016 Medicaid data from South Carolina.

Prescriptions for these drugs were more likely after visits to EDs than after ambulatory visits, researchers reported in Pediatrics.

“Each of the 828 opioid and 2,737 systemic steroid prescriptions in the data set represent a potentially inappropriate prescription,” wrote Karina G. Phang, MD, MPH, of Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., and colleagues. “These rates appear excessive given that the use of these medications is not supported by available research or recommended in national guidelines.”

To compare the frequency of opioid and corticosteroid prescriptions for children with pneumonia or sinusitis in ED and ambulatory care settings, the investigators studied 2016 South Carolina Medicaid claims, examining data for patients aged 5-18 years with pneumonia or sinusitis. They excluded children with chronic conditions and acute secondary diagnoses with potentially appropriate indications for steroids, such as asthma. They also excluded children seen at more than one type of clinical location or hospitalized within a week of the visit. Only the primary diagnosis of pneumonia or sinusitis during the first visit of the year for each patient was included.

The researchers included data from 31,838 children in the study, including 2,140 children with pneumonia and 29,698 with sinusitis.

Pneumonia was linked to an opioid prescription in 6% of ED visits (34 of 542) and 1.5% of ambulatory visits (24 of 1,590) (P ≤ .0001). Pneumonia was linked to a steroid prescription in 20% of ED visits (106 of 542) and 12% of ambulatory visits (196 of 1,590) (P ≤ .0001).

Sinusitis was linked to an opioid prescription in 7.5% of ED visits (202 of 2,705) and 2% of ambulatory visits (568 of 26,866) (P ≤ .0001). Sinusitis was linked to a steroid prescription in 19% of ED visits (510 of 2,705) and 7% of ambulatory visits (1,922 of 26,866) (P ≤ .0001).

In logistic regression analyses, ED visits for pneumonia or sinusitis were more than four times more likely to result in children receiving opioids, relative to ambulatory visits (adjusted odds ratio, 4.69 and 4.02, respectively). ED visits also were more likely to result in steroid prescriptions, with aORs of 1.67 for pneumonia and 3.05 for sinusitis.

“I was disappointed to read of these results, although not necessarily surprised,” Michael E. Pichichero, MD, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases and director of the Research Institute at Rochester (N.Y.) General Hospital, said in an interview.

The data suggest that improved prescribing practices may be needed, “especially in the ED,” wrote Dr. Phang and colleagues. “Although more children who are acutely ill may be seen in the ED, national practice guidelines and research remain relevant for these patients.”

Repeated or prolonged courses of systemic corticosteroids put children at risk for adrenal suppression and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysfunction. “Providers for children must also be aware of the trends in opioid abuse and diversion and must mitigate those risks while still providing adequate analgesia and symptom control,” they wrote.

The use of Medicaid data from 1 year in one state limits the generalizability of the findings. Nevertheless, the visits occurred “well after publication of relevant guidelines and after concerns of opioid prescribing had become widespread,” according to Dr. Phang and colleagues.

A post hoc evaluation identified one patient with a secondary diagnosis of fracture and 24 patients with a secondary diagnosis of pain, but none of these patients had received an opioid. “Thus, the small subset of patients who may have had secondary diagnoses that would warrant an opioid prescription would not have changed the overall results,” they wrote.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The authors had no relevant financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Phang KG et al. Pediatrics. 2020 Jul 2. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-3690.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com.

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