Opioid prescription patterns among patients who doctor shop; Implications for providers

PLoS One. 2020 May 26;15(5):e0232533. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0232533. eCollection 2020.


Introduction: Patients who doctor shop for opioids are a vulnerable population that present a difficult dilemma for their health care providers regarding best methods of immediate treatment and how to manage their risk of harm from opioids. We aim to describe and compare opioid prescription patterns among high quantity prescription patients who doctor shopped, high quantity prescription patients who did not (doctor shopping eligible patients), and the remaining patients who received opioid prescriptions to guide population health policies for high risk opioid use patients.

Methods: We performed a cross-sectional descriptive analysis of opioid prescriptions during an 8-year period using California's de-identified Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System (CURES) database from years 2008-2015. We identified the prevalence of patients who doctor shopped and depicted their opioid prescription patterns including prescriber characteristics, in comparison to the aforementioned groups. Doctor shopping was defined by patients who received greater than 6 or more prescriptions from at least 6 different prescribers within 6 months of time.

Results: Among the 3 million individuals who received an opioid prescription during the 8-year period, 1.3% met the doctor shopper definition. These patients received high levels of chronic opioids with 82% and 33% averaging greater than 20 and 100 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) daily, respectively, in comparison to 72% and 18% in the doctor shopping eligible group. Patients who doctor shopped received a significant proportion of their MME from 1 main prescriber (54%) and only received 2-5% of their total MME from episodic care providers, despite 88% receiving a prescription from these providers.

Conclusions: Patients who doctor shop are at high risk of opioid use disorder but represent a small fraction of those with dangerous opioid use. Furthermore, these individuals do not receive substantial opioids from episodic providers, which challenges the utility of prescription reduction programs in curbing use among this population. These results suggest we re-evaluate physician roles in the care of these patients and focus on referral to treatment and harm reduction strategies.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • California / epidemiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Health Services Misuse / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Inappropriate Prescribing / statistics & numerical data*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data
  • Prescription Drug Misuse / statistics & numerical data*


  • Analgesics, Opioid

Grant support

The authors received no specific funding for this work.