Metro

Tepid registration to track prescription abuse prompts urgent call

An online drug-tracking program aimed at curbing abuse of opioids and other prescription drugs is slated to launch Monday, but many health care providers still haven’t registered to use the system, prompting an urgent call to action Wednesday from the statewide physician’s association.

The president of the Massachusetts Medical Society said the state’s new prescription monitoring program is critical in helping stem the region’s opioid crisis. It will help prescribers learn whether patients are visiting several offices, known as doctor shopping, to accumulate opioid drugs, he said.

“This is probably the best tool we have to track prescription use,” said Dr. James Gessner, the society’s president.

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“This will lead to much more appropriate prescribing,” Gessner said. “It improves care, it decreases the number of prescriptions that may be out there, and it tightens the system appropriately.”

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As of Wednesday, just 20,224 of the 46,634 prescribers, including physicians, dentists, and nurse practitioners, had registered for the program, according to state data.

State health officials said their top priority is registering those who have issued an opioid prescription in the past six months. State data show 25,457 such prescribers, and as of Wednesday, just 44 percent had registered for the online system.

State law requires Massachusetts prescribers to consult the online database before writing a controlled-substance prescription for a new patient, or the first such prescription for any patient.

But beginning Oct. 15, all prescribers will be required to check the database before writing any prescription for narcotic medications. Currently there are no penalties in place for those who fail to comply.

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The database collects information from every prescription written in Massachusetts for controlled substances, such as narcotics, stimulants, and sedatives, the drugs most typically abused. The state launched the database years ago, but health care providers have long complained that the system, originally designed as a research tool, is clunky, time-consuming, and hard to use.

State health officials tracked 25,000 medical providers enrolled to use the old system between July and December last year and found that only one in four actually bothered to check the database before prescribing an opioid drug.

State health officials say the new Massachusetts system will allow prescribers faster access to data, including prescriptions from other states.

Several physician practices have been testing the new program since June to work out bugs, and their experiences have been encouraging, Gessner said.

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com.