Opioid Prescriptions Drop After Doctors Get Notified Of Own Patients' Fatal Overdoses


An experiment that was conducted in hopes of finding a solution to the opioid epidemic reveals a reduction in opioid prescriptions as a result of a simple intervention: informing doctors of their patients’ overdose deaths.

Can this help control the ongoing opioid epidemic?

Opioid Crackdown

Many are still affected by the opioid epidemic even after years of trying various methods of controlling the public health issue. In fact, most people who get addicted to opioids began taking the drugs in the first place because they were legally prescribed by their doctors. However, efforts made on the matter are often in the line of stricter policy and guideline changes whereas the doctors’ prescription behavior are not very much looked into.

As such, researchers at the University of Southern California worked together with the San Diego County chief medical examiner in an experiment that aimed to see how human behavior could affect or possibly reduce the rampant use of opioids.

Death Reports

For the experiment, the San Diego County coroner’s office sent out notifications to hundreds of doctors whose patients died of an accidental opioid overdose between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, the deaths having occurred within 12 months after the opioid prescriptions. The notifications also included information on other intervention methods that can lower overdose rates.

As a result, researchers observed that the doctors who were notified were 7 percent less likely to prescribe opioids to new patients and made fewer high-dose prescriptions in the following three months. All in all, the experiment resulted in a 9.7 percent total reduction in opioid prescriptions

Same Human Biases

The results of the experiment are quite significant, especially considering that most opioid prescription deaths happen in patients who actually have common conditions wherein the opioid prescription risks outweigh the benefits.

The basic idea behind the experiment is that people may tend to judge risks to be lower than they actually are because they lack personal experiences, and may therefore be less careful when not observed and falter without a nudge from an authority figure. In a way, it’s possible that many doctors do not think that their own patients are affected by the epidemic simply because they never find out about their patients’ overdose deaths.

“One of the takeaways I’d like people to have is that doctors learn a lot of clinical facts, but when it comes to clinical judgment and decision-making, they fall prey to the same biases that we all do,” said study lead Jason Doctor.

For now, the San Diego County will continue sending the letters to the doctors, while other counties are said to be interested as well.

The results of the study are published in the journal Science.

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