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Original article

Vol. 150 No. 1516 (2020)

Prevalence and practice of opioid prescription at a Swiss emergency department: 2013–2017

  • Katharina Gaertner
  • Samuel Wildbolz
  • Victor Speidel
  • Aristomenis K. Exadaktylos
  • Wolf E. Hautz
  • Martin Müller
Cite this as:
Swiss Med Wkly. 2020;150:w20202



Addiction associated with prescription opioids is increasing worldwide, including Switzerland. We aimed (1) to determine whether the prevalence and incidence of opioid therapy at an emergency department (ED) in Switzerland has changed over five years and (2) to characterise consultations with incident opioid prescription.


In this retrospective chart review, pre-existing opioid treatment and new prescriptions at the ED of Bern University Hospital “Inselspital”, Switzerland, between 2013 and 2017 were identified from the ED documentation system. Patients already taking opioids before presentation (prevalent opioid use) were distinguished from opioid-naïve patients who were prescribed opioids for the first time (incident opioid prescription) and relative numbers in every half year from 2013 to 2017 were calculated. Demographic and consultation characteristics were analysed to determine factors associated with incident opioid prescription.


Within the observation period, 199,299 patients consulted the ED. Of those, 4.95% (95% confidence interval [CI] 4.86–5.05, n = 9868) were using opioids on admission. Nearly 7.07% of them (95% CI 6.57–7.58, n = 698), 0.35% of the complete sample, were prescribed additional opioids. Incident opioid prescription for opioid-naïve patients was found in 2.26% of patients (95% 2.19–2.32, n = 4499). The relative number of prevalent opioid users did not show a significant (p = 0.163) association with time (categorised in half years) when adjusted for the potential confounders age group, trauma, the interaction of trauma and age group, other chief complaint, type of admission and time of admission. Incident opioid prescriptions significantly decreased over the study period (slope = −0.041% per half year, standard error = 0.012%, p = 0.007). The trend persisted after adjustment for the abovementioned potential confounders. Consultations resulting in opioid prescription were significantly associated with older age, musculoskeletal disorders and trauma (p <0.05).


Opioid prescriptions in a Swiss ED decreased between 2013 and 2017. Although this might be a sign of awareness of the risks of opioid prescription, the conclusion is derived from a single centre study and the observed trend warrants confirmation by data from other sources.


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