Opioid prescription patterns in Germany and the global opioid epidemic: Systematic review of available evidence.


INTRODUCTION: Opioids are one of the most important and effective drug classes in pain medicine with a key role in most medical fields. The increase of opioid prescription over time has led to higher numbers of prescription opioid misuse, abuse and opioid-related deaths in most developed OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries around the world. Whilst reliable data on the prevalence of opioid treatment is accessible for many countries, data on Germany specifically is still scarce. Considering Germany being the largest country in the European Union, the lack of evidence-based strategies from long-term studies is crucial. The aim of this work is to review and summarise relevant published literature on the prevalence of opioid prescription in Germany to adequately inform health policy strategies. METHODS: A systematic review of the epidemiology of opioid prescription in Germany was conducted, searching PubMed and Web of Science. Eligibility criteria were defined prior to conducting the search. Literature concerning Germany, published in English and German was included and the search was replicated by three independent researchers. Two levels of screening were employed. Disagreement was resolved by face-to-face discussion, leading to a consensus judgement. RESULTS: Our electronic search yielded 735 articles. Reviewing titles and abstracts yielded 19 relevant articles. Three authors examined each article's full text more closely and determined that twelve papers should be included. Of the twelve identified studies-with publication dates ranging from 1985 to 2016-six were retrospective cross-sectional studies and six were retrospective repeated-measures cross-sectional studies. Sample sizes ranged from 92,842 to ≈ 11,000,000 participants. Data sources of included studies showed vast heterogeneity. The reviewed literature suggested an increase in the number of patients with opioid prescriptions and defined daily doses of opioids per recipient in Germany over time. The majority of opioid prescriptions was used for patients with non-cancer pain. Opioid use was more common in older people, women and in the north of Germany. Fentanyl was shown to be the most prescribed strong opioid in outpatient settings in Germany, despite not being the first-line choice for chronic pain conditions. All data published before 2000-but none of the more recent studies-suggested an insufficient treatment of pain using opioids. There were no signs for a current opioid epidemic in Germany. CONCLUSIONS: Despite some limitations of the review and the heterogeneity of studies, it can be stated that the number of opioid prescriptions overall as well as the number of people receiving opioid treatment have increased over time. Most prescriptions were found to be for strong opioids and patients with non-cancer pain. Even though patterns of opioid prescription follow trends observed in other developed countries, there are no signs of an opioid epidemic in Germany. Therefore, this review could currently not find a need for urgent health policy interventions regarding opioid prescription practices. However, critical gaps in the literature remain and more research is needed to make more reliable judgements.