Importance: Opioid-tolerant only (OTO) medications, such as transmucosal immediate-release fentanyl products and certain extended-release opioid analgesics, require prior opioid tolerance for safe use, as patients without tolerance may be at increased risk of overdose. Studies using insurance claims have found that many patients initiating these medications do not appear to be opioid tolerant. Objectives: To measure prevalence of opioid tolerance in patients initiating OTO medications and to determine whether linked electronic health record (EHR) data contribute evidence of opioid tolerance not found in insurance claims data. Design, Setting, and Participants: This retrospective cohort study used a national database of deidentified longitudinal health information, including medical and pharmacy claims, insurance enrollment, and EHR data, from January 1, 2007, to December 31, 2016. Data included 131 756 US residents with at least 183 days of continuous enrollment in commercial or Medicare Advantage insurance (including medical and pharmacy benefits) who had received an OTO medication and who had no inpatient stays in the 30 days prior to starting an OTO medication; of these, 20 044 individuals had linked EHR data within the prior 183 days. Data were analyzed from July 1, 2017, to August 31, 2018. Exposures: Initiating an OTO medication. Main Outcomes and Measures: Prior opioid tolerance demonstrated through pharmacy fills or EHR data on prescriptions written. Results: Among 153 385 OTO use episodes identified, 89 029 (58.0%) occurred among women, 62 900 (41.0%) occurred among patients with Medicare Advantage insurance, 39 394 (25.7%) occurred in the Midwest, 17 366 (11.3%) occurred in the Northeast, 73 316 (47.8%) occurred in the South, and 23 309 (15.2%) occurred in the West. Less than half of use episodes (73 117 episodes [47.7%]) involved patients with evidence in claims data of opioid tolerance prior to initiating therapy with an OTO medication, including 31 392 of 101 676 episodes (30.9%) involving transdermal fentanyl, 1561 of 2440 episodes (64.0%) involving transmucosal fentanyl, 36 596 of 43 559 episodes (84.0%) involving extended-release oxycodone, and 3568 of 5710 episodes (62.5%) involving extended-release hydromorphone. Among 20 044 OTO use episodes with linked EHR and claims data, less than 1% of OTO episodes identified in claims had evidence of opioid tolerance in structured EHR data that was not present in claims data (108 episodes [0.5%]). After limiting the sample to OTO episodes identified in claims with a matching OTO prescription within 14 days in the structured EHR data, only 40 of 939 episodes (4.0%) occurred among patients with evidence of tolerance that was not present in claims data. Conclusions and Relevance: This cohort study found that most patients initiating OTO medications did not have evidence of prior opioid tolerance, suggesting they were at increased risk of opioid-related harms, including fatal overdose. Data from EHRs did not contribute substantial additional evidence of opioid tolerance beyond the data found in prescription claims. Future research is needed to understand the clinical rationale behind these observed prescribing patterns and to quantify the risk of harm to patients associated with potentially inappropriate prescribing.
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