By Jonathan H. Chen, MD, PhD, et.al. JAMA Internal Medicine.Researchers have suggested that the opioid overdose epidemic1 is primarily driven by small groups of prolific prescribers and “corrupt pill mills.”2,3 For example, the California Workers’ Compensation Institute found that 1% of prescribers accounted for one-third of schedule II opioid prescriptions and 10% accounted for 80% of prescriptions.4 This propagates a message that opioid overprescribing is a problem of a small group of high-volume prescribers, while general use is likely safe and effective. Medicare data provide the opportunity to address the question of whether such prescribing patterns occur across a national population.
The data studied represent a comprehensive national population of Medicare Part D prescribers but do not necessarily reflect clinicians’ complete practices, patient factors (eg, comorbidities and prescription indications), or medication dosing to inform morphine equivalents. With those cautions, 2 important findings are evident.
Opioid prescriptions are concentrated in specialty services in pain, anesthesia, and physical medicine and rehabilitation. By sheer volume however, total prescriptions are dominated by general practitioners (family practice, internal medicine, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants).
Contrary to the California Worker’s Compensation data showing a small subset of prescribers accounting for a disproportionately large percentage of opioid prescribing, Medicare opioid prescribing is distributed across many prescribers and is, if anything, less skewed than all drug prescribing. The trends hold up across state lines, with negligible geographic variability. Figure 2 does show greater skewing for total drug costs of Medicare opioid claims, with 78% accounted for by 10% of prescribers. This could be selection of more expensive formulations or higher doses prescribed.
The distribution of any social phenomena has some degree of skewing similar to an “80/20 rule” (eg, 20% of the population controls 80% of the wealth).6 As of 2013, however, these data argue that opioid prescribing is no more skewed than other prescribing, reflecting a widespread practice relatively indifferent to individual physicians, specialty or region. High-volume prescribers are not alone responsible for the high national volume of opioid prescriptions. Efforts to curtail national opioid overprescribing must address a broad swath of prescribers to be effective.