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TORONTO (Reuters) - Low income Canadians in the province of Ontario are being prescribed dangerously high doses of addictive painkillers like morphine and oxycodone, raising their risk of death, according to a study released on Tuesday.
The study, from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Studies, found patients were frequently prescribed higher dosages of opioids than Canadian guidelines recommend, and they stayed on the drugs for longer.
"These drugs are being prescribed to large numbers of people, often at doses that are not simply high, they are dangerous," said David Juurlink, a co-author of the study.
"Most patients, and even some doctors, may not appreciate that these drugs can cause death, particularly at high doses or when taken with alcohol or other sedating drugs, as they often are."
The Toronto-based institute focuses on research related to health care delivery in Ontario. Its study was published in Open Medicine on Tuesday.
The study found that the prescription rate for painkillers rose 16.2 percent in five years to 2008 for patients covered by Ontario's public drug plan -- a plan that mostly covers low-income residents.
About a third of the patients were receiving daily doses of long-acting painkillers like OxyContin that was above the clinical high-dose recommendation.
The research illustrated a wide gap with previous studies, which showed a far lower use of opioids among the overall population than that in the institute's report.
"The amount of opioids that has been dispensed to people in Ontario is quite shocking," said lead author Tara Gomes.
"There has been some research showing that socioeconomically disadvantaged populations can be at high risk of abuse of these drugs."
Gomes said preliminary data from the study showed the mortality rate for the patients prescribed the painkillers was as much as 10 times higher than the general population.
The study examined prescriptions for patients aged 15 to 64. It found that 19 percent of the deaths of those who were prescribed high doses of painkillers in 2004 and who died within two years were related to the drugs.
"There's clearly an increase risk of death among people who are getting higher doses," said Gomes.
The study is called "Trends in Opioid Use and Dosing in the Socioeconomically Disadvantaged."
Reporting by Solarina Ho; editing by Janet Guttsman