Study Suggests Alerting Doctors Of A Patient's Overdose Could Reduce Opioid Prescribing

In the U.S., opioid overdoses account for 130 deaths each day, reports the National Academy of Medicine. Unfortunately, rates of death from opioid overdoses continue to rise, with the National Safety Council (NSC) reporting that cases of preventable opioid deaths rose by more than 40% in 2020. Although there is no single solution for addressing the opioid epidemic in the U.S., researchers from a new study published in JAMA Network Open have identified one simple, inexpensive tactic that may effectively reduce the number of opioid prescriptions issued to patients across the country.

During the study, more than 800 clinicians in San Diego County, California, received a respectfully-worded letter from their county's medical examiner informing them if a patient of theirs had died from an opioid overdose that had been prescribed within the year preceding the patient's death between July 2015 to June 2016. After receiving the notification, researchers compared the number of opioid prescriptions issued by clinicians to a control group of physicians who had not received a letter. The study involved 166 patients who had died of an opioid overdose. Here's what experts realized.

Notifying doctors of patient death may have a long-term impact

As outlined in the study, the majority of prescribers were medical doctors, while around 11% were identified as physician assistants, and about 7% were doctors of osteopathy. 94 of the 166 deaths were attributed to an opioid prescription. The study findings revealed that for clinicians who received a letter, prescriptions filled for morphine milligram equivalents (MME) decreased by nearly 10% in the following three months. Just shy of 223,400 prescriptions were administered in the four months to one-year mark following the intervention. During that same time period, weekly rates of MME prescriptions showed a decline of about 7% amongst the letter-receiving group compared to the control group.

"The new study shows this change is not just a temporary blip and then clinicians went back to their previous prescribing," lead author Jason Doctor stated in a USC Price press release. "This low-cost intervention has a long-lasting impact." The letter also offered information about safer prescribing practices for healthcare providers.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).