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Informing Doctors Their Patients Overdosed Decreased Opioid Prescriptions

Pharma Pills
In this photo made on Monday, June 18, 2018, shows Hydrocodone Acetaminophen pills in Zelienople, Pa.
Keith Srakocic/AP

Earlier this week, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said that construction workers — who have high rates of work-related injuries — are more likely to die of an opioid overdose.

Now, a new study in the journal Science has proposed an intervention that seems to help curb the over-prescribing of dangerous painkillers.

According to the paper, many people who die of an overdose were prescribed opioids legally. Even as tens of thousands of people each year die of opioid overdoses, doctors have continued to prescribe the drugs at three times the rate they did before the epidemic.

This was puzzling to Jason Doctor, a health policy professor at USC who has been researching the crisis.

“How can doctors, who I know are good actors and want to help their patients, how is it that they are prescribing so many opioids when so many people are dying?” Doctor asked.

He and his colleagues wondered if perhaps, for many physicians, the opioid crisis seemed remote. Of course, they know it’s happening, but they might not realize their prescriptions could be a contributing factor.

The researchers decided to do an experiment to find out if informing doctors that one of their patients had died of an overdose within a year of their prescribing an opioid would make a difference.

The team sent letters, which they describe as “simple and supportive in tone” to inform clinicians that their patients had died. Subsequently, those doctors prescribed fewer of the dangerous drugs.

“We were able to get nearly a 10 percent reduction,” Doctor said.

Whether lawmakers will take notice and try this tactic remains to be seen.

“I actually met with Charlie Baker last year by chance, and we talked about this, and he expressed interest in this idea,” Doctor said, adding he believes that the intervention could be easily scaled, and used in counties across the U.S.

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