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More than 13,000 Australians each year could be at risk of developing a chronic opioid habit following elective surgery, new research from the University of South Australia has revealed.

The study, published in BMJ Open this week, tracked 24,854 patients admitted for surgery between 2014 and 2015.

Dr Renly Lim, from UniSA’s Quality Use of Medicines and Pharmacy Research Centre, said results showed 3.9% of patients discharged with opioids were still taking them a year later.

More than 2.2 million Australians undergo elective surgery each year, with about 15% discharged with opioid prescriptions.

“This means around 13,000 people may transition to become opioid users, and, as the number of surgeries performed annually is increasing, the number of people continuing opioids post-discharge is likely to increase,” Dr Lim said.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), about 150 people are hospitalised each day due to opioid harm, with the admission rate for opioids such as oxycodone, codeine and morphine more than twice as high as heroin.

Dr Lim said the study’s findings, which included those who undergo orthopaedic surgery being most at risk, mirror similar global research and point to a need for greater awareness of the risks of post-surgery opioid use and implementation of better patient support during the recovery period.

“There is a need to mitigate the risk of chronic opioid use following hospital discharge and to achieve this, we first need to make sure healthcare professionals are aware of this problem,” he said.

“For patients discharged on opioids there should be a clear discontinuation plan which is communicated to the patients and the healthcare team, and then patients should be actively followed up to reduce the risk of transitioning to chronic opioid use.”