BURLINGTON  – The number of opioid prescriptions written by physicians at The University of Vermont Medical Center continued to drop compared to previous years throughout 2018, as part of an ongoing, comprehensive effort to prevent more patients from becoming addicted to opioids.

The UVM Medical Center’s most recent self-evaluation, the “Opioid Prescribing Practices” report, covers April 2018 to July 2018. The report shows a 44 percent drop in the number of prescriptions for more than 50 pills in the third quarter of 2018, compared to the same period in 2017. Since the beginning of 2016, the number of those prescriptions is down 71 percent.

Hospital leaders noted that while prescription numbers continue to fall, the steepest drop appears to have occurred from early 2017 to the middle of 2017 – before a new state law governing prescribing practices went into effect.

“We’d already made a massive change in our prescribing,” said Dr. Stephen Leffler, chief population health and quality officer for The University of Vermont Health Network.

Those changes included instituting voluntary prescribing guidelines for maximum daily doses, tracking prescribing rates and sharing that data with providers who were writing the prescriptions. Giving hard data to physicians for the first time allowed them to compare their practices to their peers, and adjust their prescribing if it was out of sync with the norm.

“Doctors are having real conversations with their patients about treatment for their pain, and talking about possible alternatives to opiates,” Leffler said.

Dr. Leffler noted that there was a slight uptick in overall prescribing from April to July 2018, compared to the previous quarter, and said that it’s possible the numbers will waver up and down slightly going forward as physicians figure out the precise levels needed to manage patients’ pain effectively while preventing addiction and diversion.

“We want to make sure we’re prescribing the exact right amount of medicine,” Leffler said.

Vermont is one of six states that reduced overall opioid prescribing rates by more than 40 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to a recent Blue Cross Blue Shield Association report released in July. Vermont’s rate dropped 41 percent, compared to a national average reduction of 29 percent.