Electronic Real-Time Monitoring Reveals Limited Adherence to Long-Term Opioid Prescriptions in Pain Patients

David C. Houghton, Christina R. Merritt, Sierra N. Miller, Jasmine M. Mitchell, David Parker, Jonathan D. Hommel, Kathryn Cunningham, Denise M. Wilkes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Pain management physicians are increasingly focused on limiting prescription opioid abuse, yet existing tools for monitoring adherence have limited accuracy. Medication event monitoring system (MEMS) is an emerging technology for tracking medication usage in real-time but has not been tested in chronic pain patients on long-term opioid regimens. Objective: We conducted a pilot clinical trial to investigate the utility of MEMS for monitoring opioid adherence and compared to traditional methods including self-report diaries, urine drug screen (UDS), and physicians’ opinions. Methods: Opioid-maintained chronic pain patients were recruited from a pain management clinic. Participants (n=28) were randomly assigned to either receive MEMS bottles containing their opioid medication for a 90-day period or to continue using standard medication bottles. MEMS bottles were configured to record and timestamp all bottle openings and the number of pills that were removed from the bottle (via measurement of weight change). Results: Participants who received MEMS demonstrated highly heterogenous dosing patterns, with a substantial number of patients rapidly removing excessive amounts of medication and/or “stockpiling” medication. By comparison, physicians rated all participants as either “totally compliant” or “mostly compliant”. UDS results did not reveal any illicit drug use, but 25% of participants (n=7) tested negative for their prescribed opioid metabolite. MEMS data did not correlate with physician-rated adherence (P=0.24) and UDS results (P=0.77). MEMS data consistently revealed greater non-adherence than self-report data (P<0.001). Conclusion: These results highlight the limits in our understanding of naturalistic patterns of daily opioid use in chronic pain patients as well as support the use of MEMS for detecting potential misuse as compared to routine adherence monitoring methods. Future research directions include the need to determine how MEMS could be used to improve patient outcomes, minimize harm, and aid in clinical decision-making.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1815-1827
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Pain Research
StatePublished - 2024


  • chronic pain
  • medication adherence
  • medication event monitoring systems

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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