(NEW YORK) -- Statistics show the abuse of prescription painkillers has been on the rise for nearly two decades, but a new study found that primary care physicians may not be diligently monitoring patients who are taking opioid painkillers such as OxyContin, even those who are at risk for becoming dependent on them. Experts say dependence on opioids accounts for much of the rampant prescription drug abuse.
"We studied a cohort of more than 1,600 primary care patients prescribed long-term opioids and looked at how frequently they received three strategies for reducing the risk of misuse," said lead researcher Dr. Joanna Starrels, assistant professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y. The three risk-reduction strategies are urine tests, face-to-face office visits at least every six months and within a month of changing an opioid prescription, and limiting the number of early refills.
Data showed that only eight percent of the patients in the study had any urine drug testing, less than half had regular office visits and nearly 25 percent received multiple early refills.
"This suggests that primary care physicians are not using these risk reduction strategies very frequently," said Starrels.
Whitney O'Neill knows just how powerful prescription pain medication can be, and also how easy it could be for doctors to miss the signs of addiction.
For almost eight years, she was physically dependent on them. She started taking the drugs when she was around 12, after a fall caused her to suffer from crushing migraines. She was 17 when she said the drugs became a problem.
"After years of repeated use, I developed a dependency on them," said O'Neill, now 31. "I started to get sick if I didn't take them."
While she doesn't blame her doctor for feeding her habit with a constant supply of painkillers, she doesn't think her doctor realized she had a problem. And at that time, she couldn't admit she was an addict.
"I think it was a missed opportunity to have recognized I had addictive disease," said O'Neill, who is now outreach coordinator for Faces and Voices of Recovery, an advocacy group.
Addiction specialists say a lot of burden falls on primary care physicians, usually on the front lines of pain management. Some believe primary care physicians just don't know enough about addiction, while others say factors beyond their control are contributing to the increased use of opioids.
"Most primary care physicians are not trained in addictions," said Dr. Stephen Ross, clinical director of the NYU Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction. "It's not that physicians are not well-meaning, it's just a lack of education and not knowing how to treat addictions."
"It's not a lack of awareness or caring, but they don't have the tools to help manage the risk," said Starrels. "They may not know what risk the factors are or how to monitor their patients for evidence of misuse."
As for the finding that many doctors provide more early refills to patients at higher risk for misuse, even those who have a drug use disorder, Starrels stressed it's important to figure out why. She says it may be because patients are abusing the medications or because doctors are cautious and prescribing a lower dose than patients need for pain.
"This finding is very concerning, and we need to understand the reasons."
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio