Opioid Prescribing May Need a Behavioral “Nudge”

Study reveals that doctors who receive notice of patient opioid overdose under their care are more likely to change their prescribing practices.


When clinicians find out that one of their patients died of an overdose of a controlled substance, they are more likely to reduce the number and dose of opioid drugs they prescribe, according to a study funded in part by the National Institute on Aging.

Between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, San Diego County in California reported 222 deaths for which Schedule II, III, or IV drugs were the primary or contributing cause. Of these, 170 deaths were listed in the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System (CURES) database.

In the study of 861 prescribing clinicians, 388 received a notification letter from the chief deputy medical examiner of San Diego County; 438 did not receive a letter. The letter identified the deceased patient by name, address, and age. It also outlined the annual number and types of prescription drug deaths seen by the medical examiner, discussed how to access the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, and reviewed safe prescribing strategies.

Physicians who received the letter wrote 9.7% fewer opioid prescriptions in the 3 months following the intervention.

"Behavioral ‘nudges’ like these letters could be a tool to help curb the opioid epidemic," said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, MD. "This finding could be very useful in the effort to reduce inappropriate prescribing of opioids without severely restricting availability of legally prescribed opioids for patients who should be getting them."

Next Article: