New clinical protocol after general surgery cuts opioid prescribing in half


London, ON, Canada - In recent years deaths from opioid overdoses have become one of the most common injury-related deaths in North America. The continent also has the highest per capita rate of opioid prescription in the world. 

Recognizing the role that opioid prescribing plays in the national opioid crisis, a team of researchers at Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University have developed a new clinical protocol called STOP Narcotics. A study demonstrating the efficacy of their protocol is being presented at the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress in Boston, Massachusetts on October 24. 

The protocol includes a combination of patient and health care provider education and an emphasis on non-opioid pain control. The study found that they were able to reduce the overall amount of opioids being prescribed after general surgery by 50 per cent while still adequately treating a patient’s post-operative pain.   

“By significantly reducing the amount of opioids prescribed, this decreases the exposure risk and potential for misuse of narcotic medication,” said Dr. Luke Hartford, a resident in general surgery at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and first author on the study. “This also decreases excess medication available to be diverted to individuals for whom it was not intended.”

The study involved 416 patients at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) and St. Joseph’s Health Care London who underwent laparoscopic cholecystectomy or open hernia repair. They received medication for post-operative pain through the standardized protocol, specifically acetaminophen (Tylenol) and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (Naproxen) for the first 72 hours post-surgery. 

The protocol instructs physicians to write a limited prescription of ten pills of opioids (Tramadol), with an expiry date of seven days after surgery, with instructions for the patient to fill this prescription only if adequate pain control was not otherwise achieved. There are also instructions on proper disposal of unused medication for the patient.

Dr. Ken Leslie, scientist at Lawson, associate professor in the Department of Surgery at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, and Chair/Chief of the Division of General Surgery at London Health Sciences Centre led the implementation of the new protocol.

“We recognized that before STOP Narcotics, every surgeon had a different approach to pain control, and that most surgeons were prescribing more narcotics than are actually needed,” said Dr. Leslie. “When we looked at the data from this new protocol, we saw that the patient’s pain-control was just as good with this pathway, without a huge prescription for narcotics.”

The results showed that in the STOP narcotics group, compared to a control group, there was a 50 per cent reduction in the number of opioids being prescribed. They also demonstrated that only 45 per cent of patients actually filled their opioid prescription, compared to 95 per cent in the control group, and they were also able to increase appropriate disposal of excess opioid medication from 7 per cent in the control group to 23 per cent in the STOP Narcotics group. The levels of reported post-operative pain were the same in both groups.


Study results infograhic STOP Narcotics

The group now hopes to expand the protocol for applications beyond general surgery.

“If we can decrease the opioid exposure risk in our patients, and decrease the amount of excess medication available for diversion, and spread this to other institutions and surgical procedures and specialities, this has the potential to significantly impact the opioid crisis,” said Dr. Patrick Murphy, a resident in general surgery at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and co-author on the study.

The study, “The Standardization of Outpatient Procedure (STOP) Narcotics: A Prospective Noninferiority Study to Reduce Opioid Use in Outpatient General Surgical Procedures,” is published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.


Additional images 

Dr. Ken Leslie 


Dr. Ken Leslie

Dr. Luke Hartford


Dr. Luke Hartfod

Dr. Patrick Murphy


Dr. Patrick Murphy

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About Lawson Health Research Institute

Lawson Health Research Institute is one of Canada’s top hospital-based research institutes, tackling the most pressing challenges in health care. As the research institute of London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care London, our innovation happens where care is delivered. Lawson research teams are at the leading-edge of science with the goal of improving health and the delivery of care for patients. Working in partnership with Western University, our researchers are encouraged to pursue their curiosity, collaborate often and share their discoveries widely. Research conducted through Lawson makes a difference in the lives of patients, families and communities around the world. To learn more, visit

About Western

Western delivers an academic experience second to none. Since 1878, The Western Experience has combined academic excellence with life-long opportunities for intellectual, social and cultural growth in order to better serve our communities. Our research excellence expands knowledge and drives discovery with real-world application. Western attracts individuals with a broad worldview, seeking to study, influence and lead in the international community.

About The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University is one of Canada’s preeminent medical and dental schools. Established in 1881, it was one of the founding schools of Western University and is known for being the birthplace of family medicine in Canada. For more than 130 years, the School has demonstrated a commitment to academic excellence and a passion for scientific discovery. 

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