Patient Safety Tip of the Week

October 13, 2015    Dilaudid Dangers #3



Actually, we’ve done more than 3 columns on the dangers associated with use of HYDROmorphone (Dilaudid) and usually recommend hospitals avoid including it in standardized order sets and even restrict its use to individuals specifically “privileged” to order it, such as pain management physicians.


But recent research reveals a disturbing trend: HYDROmorphone is increasingly replacing morphine as a first line opioid for pain management in hospital inpatients. A study done using data from the University Health Systems Consortium (UHC) from October 2010 through September 2013 (Gulur 2015) found that over the three year period the use of HYDROmorphone increased 22% and 17% among surgical and medical patients, respectively, while use of morphine decreased 22% and 6% in surgical and medical patients, respectively. During the study period HYDROmorphone actually overtook morphine as the more commonly used analgesic in surgical patients.


In addition, adverse events (defined as use of naloxone on the same day as a dose of opioid) were more frequent in patients receiving HYDROmorphone (1.11% vs. 0.86% in those receiving morphine). While length of stay was almost one day longer in patients receiving morphine, the 30-day readmission rate was 1.37% higher in surgical patients receiving HYDROmorphone and 3.41% higher in medical patients receiving HYDROmorphone.


The study does, however, have significant limitations. First it relied on administrative data that is more intended for billing than clinical uses. The reasons for use of one agent rather than the other could not be determined from the data and the data did not indicate which patients were on PCA pumps. The data also lacked good risk adjustment. And, perhaps most importantly, the only adverse events identified were those requiring rescue with naloxone.


So there are unanswered questions. But these data are in keeping with our own experience with HYDROmorphone and the trend in usage is bothersome. The authors of the study also cite studies showing that common side effects (nausea, vomiting, and pruritis) are no different between the two drugs and that equipotent doses of each drug have no significant difference in efficacy, adverse effect profile or patient preference. One reason clinicians often give for use of HYDROmorphone over morphine is less pruritis with HYDROmorphone but a meta-analysis showed no difference in pruritis between the two drugs (Felden 2011).


Opioid use in the hospital setting is substantial and it’s not just surgical patients who are receiving opioids. Over half (51%) of medical inpatients receive opioids, often in high doses (Herzig 2014). That study also showed hospitals with higher opioid-prescribing rates had higher adjusted relative risk of a severe opioid-related adverse event per patient exposed.


The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine issued an Advisory regarding the safety of HYDROmorphone in September 2012 (Commonwealth of Massachusetts 2012). They had previously issued such an Advisory in 2007 but issued the new one after receiving 26 reports of complications related to the use of HYDROmorphone since the 2007 Advisory. They noted that half the patients were under 60, most were female, and most events occurred on the night shift. Most had comorbidities or use of concomitant medications that predisposed them to respiratory depression. Events were described with all routes of HYDROmorphone administration. The Advisory provided some case studies and lessons learned and made recommendations, most of which focused on systems improvements and many of which we have previously recommended and are discussed below.


Ironically, problems with Dilaudid may be an unintended consequence of a patient safety initiative taken by most facilities. Demerol (meperidine) was removed from formularies a number of years ago because a toxic metabolite was causing significant untoward effects. Dilaudid became the alternative many physicians chose and most healthcare workers were much less familiar with Dilaudid. Obviously, the trend has continued and, as the Gulur study shows, Dilaudid use has now surpassed morphine use in many hospitals.


The major problem is misperception of the relative potency of HYDROmorphone. All too many healthcare professionals mistake HYDROmorphone as being equivalent to morphine when, in fact, HYDROmorphone is much more potent on a mg basis. While estimates of equipotency vary considerably in the literature, most now agree that 1 mg of Dilaudid is probably the equivalent of at least 7 mg of morphine. Chang and colleagues (Chang 2006) had noted several years ago that emergency room physicians and nurses who were hesitant to administer 7 to 10 mg. of morphine were not reluctant to administer 1 to 1.5 mg. of Dilaudid. They point out this is an illusion that less narcotic is being used with that Dilaudid dose.


A second factor is that HYDROmorphone crosses the blood-brain barrier faster than morphine does, resulting in faster analgesic effect. However, this also means the side effect of respiratory depression would occur earlier as well.


That 2012 Commonwealth of Massachusetts Advisory (Commonwealth of Massachusetts 2012) lessons learned and multiple recommendations. Some hospitals began to require the clinicians who prescribe and administer HYDROmorphone undergo a privileging process and annual competencies to verify proficiency with pain management and opioid reversal. Others discourage the use of HYDROmorphone as a first line narcotic analgesic and require consultation/approval of Anesthesia/Pain Management or Pharmacy. Many created standard order sets and eliminated use of ranges for dosing or timing. Some limited hospital stock to 1 mg/ml vials and floor access was eliminated or tightly controlled. Several eliminated the override function from automated dispensing cabinets for HYDROmorphone. They also describe the education process for physicians, nurses and patients and their families. Monitoring of patient prescribed HYDROmorphone was discussed and special attention was given to patients sent to areas like Radiology after receiving HYDROmorphone.


To reiterate from our multiple columns on Dilaudid dangers, here are strategies you should consider to reduce the risk of Dilaudid/HYDROmorphone (and other opioid) adverse events:



Yes, we use “Dilaudid Dangers” as a catchy title. But it’s no laughing matter. Use of HYDROmorphone has become a real risk lurking in most hospitals and other healthcare settings today despite warnings from multiple patient safety organizations and the trend toward its increased use is bothersome.



Our prior columns on patient safety issues related to Dilaudid/HYDROmorphone:



Other Patient Safety Tips of the Week pertaining to opioid-induced respiratory depression and PCA safety:









Gulur P, Banh E, Koury K, et al. Morphine versus hydromorphone: does choice of opioid influence outcomes? 40th Annual Regional Anesthesiology and Acute Pain Medicine Meeting May 14-16, 2015 Las Vegas, Nevada



Felden L, Walter, C, Harder S, et al. Comparative clinical effects of hydromorphone and morphine: a meta-analysis. Br J Anaesth 2011; 107(3): 319-328



Herzig SJ, Rothberg MB, Cheung M, et al. Opioid utilization and opioid-related adverse events in nonsurgical patients in US hospitals. J Hosp Med 2014; 9(2): 73-81



Commonwealth of Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine. Quality and Patient Safety Division. Review of Safety and Quality Reviews Involving Hydromorphone. September 2012



Chang AK, Bijur PE, Meyer RH, et al. Safety and Efficacy of Hydromorphone as an Analgesic Alternative to Morphine in Acute Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial.

Ann Emerg Med 2006; 48: 164-172






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