Quality improvement for opioids

Information, tools and resources for making changes to achieve optimal safety and health outcomes in your use of opioids for patients with chronic non-cancer pain.

Quality improvement for opioids

Opioids and chronic non-cancer pain

Chronic pain is pain that lasts more than three months, or longer than expected for healing after surgery, an injury or a condition, or is due to an unknown cause. When the cause is not cancer, it is called chronic non-cancer pain.

Chronic non-cancer pain is an individual, multifactorial experience influenced by culture, previous pain events, beliefs, expectations, mood and resilience.1 It is highly prevalent in Australia, affecting up to 17% of males and 20% of females.2

First-line therapies include non-pharmacological treatments such as patient education, gradually increasing physical activity and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). They may also include non-opioid medicines such as paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs).1,3 These approaches and medicines need to be trialled and optimised before opioids are considered.

Opioids can be an effective component of the management of acute and cancer-related pain. However, evidence shows that for most patients with chronic non-cancer pain, opioids do not provide clinically important improvement in pain or function compared with placebo.4

Opioids for chronic non-cancer pain should be reserved for short-term trials for patients who have not responded to first-line therapies, after discussing the potential harms and benefits with the patient. Opioids should only be trialled as part of multimodal treatment.1

The aim of the opioid trial is to determine a patient’s response to treatment as well as the lowest dose needed to achieve an improvement in pain and functioning.5,6 A time-limited trial of opioids means starting, titrating, monitoring response and discontinuing the opioids if important improvement in pain or function is not achieved within a specified time period.3

Opioid use in Australia

Opioid prescriptions rose by 24% between 2010–11 and 2014–15, from 369 to 456 prescriptions per 1,000 people.7 Around 3.1 million people had opioid prescriptions dispensed in 2016–17.8 Based on data from the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health study, in 2015–16, 7.6% of total prescriptions in general practice were for opioids.9

Pharmaceutical opioids are associated with three deaths, 150 hospitalisations and 14 emergency department presentations each day in Australia. That’s more than twice as many people dying from pharmaceutical opioid overdose as from heroin overdose.8

Good clinical governance is supported by comprehensive practice policies aimed at a unified approach to drugs of dependence, which will support individual GPs to prescribe them safely and appropriately.10

Read more about opioids and chronic non-cancer pain.






RACGP 2017

Prescribing drugs of dependence in general practice, Part C1: Opioids.

This guide aims to help GPs prescribe opioids appropriately in the general practice context. It is designed to discourage inappropriate use and reduce harms by providing GPs with guidance and practical advice about opioid therapy.

RACGP Prescribing drugs of dependence in general practice, Part C2: The role of opioids in pain management

This guide is designed to assist with the appropriate and accountable prescribing of analgesic medications in general practice. Used in combination with RACGP’s Prescribing drugs of dependence in general practice, Part C1: Opioids (see above), it is designed to discourage inappropriate use and reduce harms of opioids. It provides GPs with evidence-based guidance and practical advice on pain and pain management.

NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation (ACI) 2019

Quick steps to manage chronic pain in primary care. Pain management Network

The most recent Australian opioid guideline. It is a brief guide that provides easily understood information on initiating, continuing and reducing opioids.

Busse et al. 2017

Guideline for opioid therapy and chronic noncancer pain

These are comprehensive guidelines on the use of opioids in chronic non-cancer pain, published by the CMAJ.



  1. Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. Prescribing drugs of dependence in general practice, Part C2: The role of opioids in pain management. East Melbourne: RACGP, 2017 (accessed 19 March 2019).
  2. Currow DC, Phillips J, Clark K. Using opioids in general practice for chronic non-cancer pain: an overview of current evidence. Med J Aust 2016;205:334-5.
  3. Busse JW, Craigie S, Juurlink DN, et al. Guideline for opioid therapy and chronic noncancer pain. CMAJ 2017;189:E659-E66.
  4. Busse JW, Wang L, Kamaleldin M, et al. Opioids for chronic noncancer pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA 2018;320:2448-60.
  5. NSW Therapeutic Advisory Group Inc. Preventing and managing problems with opioid prescribing for chronic non-cancer pain. Sydney: NSW TAG, 2015 (accessed 8 January 2019).
  6. Faculty of Pain Medicine. Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists. Recommendations regarding the use of opioid analgesics in patients with chronic non-cancer pain. PM01 2015. Melbourne: ANZCA, 2015 (accessed 14 March 2019).
  7. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Australia’s health 2018. Australia’s health series no. 16. Canberra 2018 (accessed 17 November 2019).
  8. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Opioid harm in Australia and comparisons between Australia and Canada. Canberra: AIHW, 2018 (accessed 19 April 2019).
  9. Britt H, Miller G, Henderson J, et al. General practice activity in Australia 2015-16. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2016 (accessed 05 December 2019).
  10. Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. Prescribing drugs of dependence in general practice, Part C1: Opioids. East Melbourne: RACGP, 2017 (accessed 19 November 2019).

Improvement measures

Improvement measures can be used as part of practice quality improvement to:

  1. review the care of those patients who are currently prescribed opioids
  2. reflect on whole-of-practice opioid prescribing and identify opportunities to improve workflow, policy and procedures for future care.

The improvement measures recommended for opioids and chronic non-cancer pain are:

Please contact [email protected] with questions or feedback about these measures.


What to do

What to do

Every practice is different and will have different priorities and ways of working. Determine, in collaboration with the practice team, how the practice wishes to prioritise patients for review and then agree on practice-wide systems for the management of drugs of dependence. Discuss what behaviours may need to change to achieve best practice and why they are occurring. 

Choose quality improvement interventions that address the cause of the behaviours.

For individual patients:

  • This may include reminders to GPs in clinical software patient files to add a diagnosis.
  • Consider generating patient recall requests to review treatment and refer for multidisciplinary care where appropriate, or initiating/updating of their GPMP or TCA.
  • Discuss with the practice team the option of pharmacist consultations (or home medication reviews) for specific patients where tapering may be indicated.

For the practice:

  • Discuss as a team at a clinical meeting and complete the RACGP Simple checklist for a general practice to review its quality management of drugs of dependence
  • What policies and procedures need to be implemented or updated for future opioid prescribing? Who can take the lead on this?
  • Decide if and what additional education or clinical update is needed (outreach or in-house), for example, NPS MedicineWise educational visiting
  • Would a clinical audit of the practice’s opioid prescribing in the last 12 months be useful?

For consumers

  • Choosing Wisely Australia’s patient action plan – Managing pain and opioid medicines
    This patient guide offers 5 questions to ask when prescribed an opioid for non-cancer pain in hospital, tipis for taking opioids at home and a personal pain management plan. Note that the use of opioids in palliative care to manage symptoms of a life-limiting illness is not within scope of this resource.
  • Painaustralia resources – Role of Medication, which includes:
    • medications for chronic non-cancer pain and changes to codeine access
    • videos explaining pain and what to do about it
    • material on the limited role of opioids, and
    • resources from factsheets to self-management tools.
  • Pain Management Network resource – Pain and role of medications, which provides information and videos about medicines for chronic non-cancer pain.