Sales of prescription opioids in the US quadrupled in the 15 years between 1999 and 2014. With 255 million opioid prescriptions written by US physicians in 2012, it reached its peak. Since then, the nationwide prescription rate has dropped every year, but the damage has been done.
An estimated 115 people in the US die every day from opioid overdoses, both on prescription drugs and on the illegal ones that many people turn to after being legalized. And too many doctors still write way too many opioid prescriptions. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, about 25% of US states had at least as many opioid prescriptions as residents in 201
Reducing prescriptions is just one step toward reducing the number of opioid deaths. For this purpose, a group of physicians developed an experiment, the results of which were recently published in the journal Science. Over 12 months in 2015 and 2016, the researchers examined a group of 861 physicians who had prescribed opioids to patients who later died of overdose. Of these, 388 received a letter from the medical examiner's office in San Diego County, California, to let them know that a patient had died-something many doctors would never have known.
"This is a courtesy communication to inform you that your patient [name, date of birth inserted here] died on [date inserted here]," the letters began. "Prescription drug overdose was either the leading cause of death or contributed to death."
The letters provided statistics on annual opioid deaths (250 to 270) and five tips for better prescribing practices, such as, and did not prescribe combinations of opioids and sedatives (a particularly deadly cocktail)
The researchers then followed doctors' prescribing habits , Physicians who received the letters prescribed between 6.2% and 13.2% less opioids in the three months thereafter; Those who did not receive a letter did not change their habits at all.
The letters did not indicate that the doctor's actions directly caused the death of the patient – most of the deceased patients had received prescriptions from several physicians. They merely recalled that meeting physicians with patients is only part of their overall picture of health, lead author Jason Doctor told NPR.
"Right now, doctors are receiving biased information," he said. "They only see patients who come back to their clinic alive, not those who die and never return."