Doctors Prescribe Fewer Opioids After Learning of Patient Overdoses

As health care providers work to combat the growing abuse epidemic, the results of a new study suggest that interventions using behavioral insights can change the course of care.

As health care providers work to combat the growing opioid abuse epidemic, the results of a new study suggest that knowledge of a patient’s overdose can lead physicians to prescribe fewer opioids.1

The study, published in Science, found that many clinicians do not learn when their patients die as a result of opioid overdose, as these patients generally disappear from their practices without any notification. To better understand the effects of reducing this disconnect, the research team evaluated data on 861 clinicians who had prescribed opioids to 170 patients who later died of an opioid overdose. Half these prescribers were randomly selected to receive a letter that informed them of a patient’s overdose and death while providing information from the CDC on safe prescribing guidelines.

After 3 months, the researchers determined that clinicians who received a letter decreased their opioid prescribing by an average of 9.7% compared with those who did not receive a letter. Clinicians in the letter group were also less likely to start a new patient on opioids and to prescribe higher doses than those in the control group.

Noting that mandated opioid limits have not been shown to have a significant impact, the study authors emphasized that the flexibility and clinical information provided by the letters could prove considerably useful in reducing deaths due to opioid abuse.

“Interventions that use behavioral insights to nudge clinicians to correct course are powerful, low-cost tools because they maintain the autonomy of the physician to ultimately decide the best course of care for their patient,” lead author Jason Doctor, PhD, said in a statement. “In this case, we know opioids, though beneficial to some patients with certain conditions, come with high risks that the doctor may not fully grasp when observing patients in the clinic. Providing information about harm that would otherwise go unseen by them gives physicians a clearer picture.”


Hedt S. Study: doctors reduced opioid prescriptions after learning a patient overdosed. University of Southern California website. Published August 9, 2018. Accessed August 10, 2018.