News Release

Penn study reveals how opioid supply shortages shape emergency department prescribing behaviors

Injectable opioid shortage in 2018 led to less opioid use overall, yet no significant change in opioid dosing, Penn Medicine research finds

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

PHILADELPHIA-- When evaluating the opioid crisis, research reveals that external factors - such as the volume of pre-filled syringes, or a default number of opioid tablets that could easily be ordered at discharge for the patient - can shift prescribing and compel emergency department (ED) physicians to administer or prescribe greater quantities of opioids. A new study published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology reveals that opioid prescribing behavior can also be decreased by external factors, such as a supply shortage.

Led by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers evaluated pharmacy data from the electronic medical records (EMR) collected before, during, and after a period of parenteral opioid shortage across two large urban academic emergency departments - the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey. In this case, the shortage was of parenteral morphine and hydromorphone, as a result of supply chain disruptions caused by Hurricane Maria in 2018.

Researchers found that the percentage of patients who received an opioid among all ED visits during the 2018 shortage fell significantly from 11.5% pre-shortage to 8.5% during, and did not return to baseline once the shortage abated. Further, the total number of oral or IV opioid doses administered during the shortage also decreased and remained lower than pre-shortage levels once supply chains were restored. However, the study also found that while fewer opioid doses were administered to fewer patients, there was no change in net Morphine Milligram Equivalent (MME) per patient receiving opioids.

"Although the percentage of patients who received non-opioid analgesics did not rise during the shortage, it was significantly higher in the post-shortage period," said lead investigator Amanda Deutsch, MD, an Emergency Medicine resident at Penn. "This suggests that a subset of patients were transitioned to non-opioids, and this prescribing practice was a sustained change after the resolution of the shortage."

The study also found that because the shortages were specifically of parenteral morphine and hydromorphone, those were replaced by parenteral fentanyl, but the overall total use in MME of opioids administered remained the same. The use of oral morphine also appeared to increase during the shortage period. These findings may suggest that the shortage may have led to a shift from IV opioid use to oral opioid formulations.

However, researchers felt that the shift in prescribing patterns during the shortage can offer an opportunity for more research into how external factors can influence ED prescribing practices. "Changing clinician prescribing behavior is challenging," said author Jeanmarie Perrone, MD, a professor of Emergency Medicine at Penn. "This study shows encouraging data to support that there are environmental modifications that can nudge providers toward more judicious opioid use."


Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $8.9 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $496 million awarded in the 2020 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center--which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report--Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; and Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.

Penn Medicine is powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 44,000 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2020, Penn Medicine provided more than $563 million to benefit our community.

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