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How opioid prescribing policies influence primary care clinicians’ treatment decisions and conversations with patients with chronic pain

Elizabeth C. Danielson, PhD, Christopher A. Harle, PhD, Sarah M. Downs, MPH, Laura Militello, MA, Olena Mazurenko, MD, PhD


Objective: The 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline for prescribing opioids for chronic pain aimed to assist primary care clinicians in safely and effectively prescribing opioids for chronic noncancer pain. Individual states, payers, and health systems issued similar policies imposing various regulations around opioid prescribing for patients with chronic pain. Experts argued that healthcare organizations and clinicians may be misapplying the federal guideline and subsequent opioid prescribing policies, leading to an inadequate pain management. The objective of this study was to understand how primary care clinicians involve opioid prescribing policies in their treatment decisions and in their conversations with patients with chronic pain.

Design: We conducted a secondary qualitative analysis of data from 64 unique primary care visits and 87 post-visit interviews across 20 clinicians from three healthcare systems in the Midwestern United States. Using a multistep process and thematic analysis, we systematically analyzed data excerpts addressing opioid prescribing policies.

Results: Opioid prescribing policies influenced clinicians’ treatment decisions to not initiate opioids, prescribe fewer opioids overall (theme #1), and begin tapering and discontinuation of opioids (theme #2) for most patients with chronic pain. Clinical precautions, described in the opioid prescribing policies to monitor use, were directly invoked during visits for patients with chronic pain (theme #3).

Conclusions: Opioid prescribing policies have multidimensional influence on clinician treatment decisions for patients with chronic pain. Our findings may inform future studies to explore mechanisms for aligning pressures around opioid prescribing, stemming from various opioid prescribing policies, with the need to deliver individualized pain care.


chronic pain, opioid prescribing policies, treatment decisions, primary care

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