Overprescribing Opioids: How It Has Contributed To The Opioid Epidemic

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on May 27, 2022

The overprescription of opioids is now known to be one of the most significant causes of the opioid epidemic. There are several reasons overprescribing opioids became a trend in the U.S., including policy changes to how hospitals are funded and how doctors are paid.

How Overprescribing Opioids Has Contributed To The Opioid Epidemic

In the United States, about 50,000 individuals died of opioid-related overdose deaths in 2019.

The misuse of opioids has been well-researched now, and one of the leading causes of this epidemic includes the overprescribing of prescription drugs.

Although opioid prescribing has decreased in recent years, the opioid epidemic and drug overdose deaths continue to be an issue.

Overprescribing opioid drugs is one contributing factor in the opioid epidemic.

Why Doctors Prescribe Opioids

Many doctors fall into the category of believing the pharmaceutical companies advertising campaigns—which claim opioids are not addictive.

This is one of the main factors that played a role in overprescribing these medications.

Many doctors did not want their patients to suffer or be in pain and were led to believe these painkillers were safe.

The most common reasons someone is prescribed opioids include:

  • management of chronic pain (pain management)
  • acute pain
  • postoperative pain

View a list of opioids from strongest to weakest

Ways That Overprescribing Opioids Has Contributed The Opioid Epidemic

Prescribing narcotics at high rates has affected the opioid use disorder epidemic in a number of ways. Some possible causes of this impact include the following.

Influence Of Hospitals And Policymakers

The trend of overprescribing these pain medications was the result of policy changes and reimbursement structures for doctors.

Opioid prescribing practices have changed to include hospital rankings based on patient satisfaction surveys. If these surveys were not positive, the hospital could lose funding.

Surgeons, in particular, have a hard time with these policy changes as the definition of “adequate treatment” of post-surgical pain is not adequately defined.

Healthcare Providers Prescribing A Larger Prescription Than Needed

Much of the research data suggests that prescribers are giving out larger opioid prescriptions than their patients need.

This is done in an attempt to avoid inconvenient refill processes and extra steps for the patient and the doctor.

When someone is overprescribed opioids, it can result in:

  • distribution of opioids into communities
  • potential opioid misuse and addiction
  • possible transition to illicit drug misuse (i.e., fentanyl or heroin)

Some Doctors Prescribed Opioids To Turn A Profit

Aside from well-meaning doctors who believed the pharmaceutical companies’ false claims, some doctors saw opioids as a way to increase their profits.

They set up opioid “clinics” in strip malls across the country and used the lack of regulation to hand out opioid prescriptions to virtually anyone who walked through their doors.

These are the healthcare professionals who have seen the most regulation since the truth about the addictive nature of opioids was discovered.

OxyContin And Other Opioids Are Prescribed Too Frequently

Increased prescribing of opioids like oxycodone led to widespread misuse of prescription and non-prescription opioids before it was clear that these medications were highly addictive.

Consider the following opioid misuse rates related to the opioid epidemic:

  • 21 to 29 percent of those prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.
  • Eight to 12 percent of individuals using opioids for chronic pain become addicted.
  • Four to six percent of people who misuse their opioid prescription switch to abusing heroin once they no longer have access to their prescription.

How Likely Is It To Develop An Opioid Addiction?

The chances someone will develop an opioid use disorder depends on many individual factors, including:

  • length of time a person is prescribed to take opioids for acute pain
  • the amount of time someone continues to take an opioid medication (whether prescribed or misused)

The new knowledge of the truly addictive nature of opioids has led most medical centers to encourage doctors to use non-opioid painkillers.

Some of these non-opioid painkillers include:

  • ibuprofen
  • acetaminophen
  • and others

Getting Help For Opioid Abuse And Addiction

Pain control is possible without an opioid prescription. Call our helpline today for a free substance abuse assessment and to find a rehab center for opioid addiction.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on May 27, 2022

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