Exploring physician decisions about end-of-life opiate prescribing: a qualitative study

J Palliat Med. 2011 May;14(5):567-72. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2010.0505. Epub 2011 Mar 17.


Background: Opiates are commonly used for symptoms at the end of life (EOL). Little is known about the decision-making process physicians go through when deciding to prescribe opiates for their EOL patients. The study's objective was to explore physician factors affecting EOL opiate prescribing.

Methods: Qualitative study of 38 physicians in the Denver area in the specialties of outpatient and inpatient medicine, geriatrics, oncology, and palliative care. Semi-structured qualitative interviews by trained interviewers asked physicians about their knowledge, attitudes, and experiences in prescribing opiates, reasons for prescribing opiates, barriers to prescribing opiates, changes in prescribing habits, and perceived patient factors that influence prescribing. Interviews were analyzed using ATLAS.ti qualitative analysis software and independently coded by two reviewers.

Results: We found a spectrum of beliefs ranging from the viewpoint that opiates are underused at EOL to overused. We found five key themes: practices in when and how to use opiates, barriers to prescribing, personal experiences drive prescribing, social meaning of opiates, and differences in the role of physician. Physicians interviewed described experiences, both personal and professional, that influenced their opiate-prescribing habits. All respondents expressed positive experiences with prescribing opiates in being able to ease patients' suffering at EOL and to improve their functionality and quality of life.

Conclusions: Differences in prescribing habits, attitudes, and experiences of physicians influence opiate prescribing, which may lead to over- and underprescribing. Knowledge, barriers, and fears about EOL opiate prescribing need to be addressed to ensure EOL patients are receiving appropriate symptom relief.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Colorado
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Opiate Alkaloids / therapeutic use*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • Terminal Care*


  • Opiate Alkaloids