Opioid Prescribing by Primary Care Providers: a Cross-Sectional Analysis of Nurse Practitioner, Physician Assistant, and Physician Prescribing Patterns

J Gen Intern Med. 2020 Sep;35(9):2584-2592. doi: 10.1007/s11606-020-05823-0. Epub 2020 Apr 24.


Background: Prescription opioid overprescribing is a focal point for legislators, but little is known about opioid prescribing patterns of primary care nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs).

Objective: To identify prescription opioid overprescribers by comparing prescribing patterns of primary care physicians (MDs), nurse practitioners (NPs), and physician assistants (PAs).

Design: Retrospective, cross-sectional analysis of Medicare Part D enrollee prescription data.

Participants: Twenty percent national sample of 2015 Medicare Part D enrollees.

Main measures: We identified potential opioid overprescribing as providers who met at least one of the following: (1) prescribed any opioid to > 50% of patients, (2) prescribed ≥ 100 morphine milligram equivalents (MME)/day to > 10% of patients, or (3) prescribed an opioid > 90 days to > 20% of patients.

Key results: Among 222,689 primary care providers, 3.8% of MDs, 8.0% of NPs, and 9.8% of PAs met at least one definition of overprescribing. 1.3% of MDs, 6.3% of NPs, and 8.8% of PAs prescribed an opioid to at least 50% of patients. NPs/PAs practicing in states with independent prescription authority were > 20 times more likely to overprescribe opioids than NPs/PAs in prescription-restricted states.

Conclusions: Most NPs/PAs prescribed opioids in a pattern similar to MDs, but NPs/PAs had more outliers who prescribed high-frequency, high-dose opioids than did MDs. Efforts to reduce opioid overprescribing should include targeted provider education, risk stratification, and state legislation.

Keywords: nurse practitioner; opioid epidemic; opioid prescribing; physician assistant; primary care providers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Medicare
  • Nurse Practitioners*
  • Physician Assistants*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Primary Health Care
  • Retrospective Studies
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Analgesics, Opioid