Prescribing Associated with High-Risk Opioid Exposures Among Non-cancer Chronic Users of Opioid Analgesics: a Social Network Analysis

J Gen Intern Med. 2019 Nov;34(11):2443-2450. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-05114-3. Epub 2019 Aug 16.


Background: The continued rise in fatalities from opioid analgesics despite a steady decline in the number of individual prescriptions directing ≥ 90 morphine milligram equivalents (MME)/day may be explained by patient exposures to redundant prescriptions from multiple prescribers.

Objectives: We evaluated prescribers' specialty and social network characteristics associated with high-risk opioid exposures resulting from single-prescriber high-daily dose prescriptions or multi-prescriber discoordination.

Design: Retrospective cohort study.

Participants: A cohort of prescribers with opioid analgesic prescription claims for non-cancer chronic opioid users in an Illinois Medicaid managed care program in 2015-2016.

Main measures: Per prescriber rates of single-prescriber high-daily-dose prescriptions or multi-prescriber discoordination.

Key results: For 2280 beneficiaries, 36,798 opioid prescription claims were submitted by 3532 prescribers. Compared to 3% of prescriptions (involving 6% of prescribers and 7% of beneficiaries) that directed ≥ 90 MME/day, discoordination accounted for a greater share of high-risk exposures-13% of prescriptions (involving 23% of prescribers and 24% of beneficiaries). The following specialties were at highest risk of discoordinated prescribing compared to internal medicine: dental (incident rate ratio (95% confidence interval) 5.9 (4.6, 7.5)), emergency medicine (4.7 (3.8, 5.8)), and surgical subspecialties (4.2 (3.0, 5.8)). Social network analysis identified 2 small interconnected prescriber communities of high-volume pain management specialists, and 3 sparsely connected groups of predominantly low-volume primary care or emergency medicine clinicians. Using multivariate models, we found that the sparsely connected sociometric positions were a risk factor for high-risk exposures.

Conclusion: Low-volume prescribers in the social network's periphery were at greater risk of intended or discoordinated prescribing than interconnected high-volume prescribers. Interventions addressing discoordination among low-volume opioid prescribers in non-integrated practices should be a priority. Demands for enhanced functionality and integration of Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs or referrals to specialized multidisciplinary pain management centers are potential policy implications.

Keywords: Medicaid; care discoordination; epidemiology; harm reduction; opioid analgesic prescribing; social network analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage*
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Humans
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs / statistics & numerical data
  • Primary Health Care
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Social Networking


  • Analgesics, Opioid