One Percent of Doctors Responsible for 25 Percent of Opiate Prescriptions – A Look at Overprescribing

Prescribing Pills

Doctors play a crucial role in our society. Their job is to help keep the American people healthy. We look to them for medical advice and for the correct approaches to keeping us in good physical shape. That’s why, when doctors give lousy information or when they provide a solution that ends up causing more harm than benefit, we lose faith in them and question their right to practice medicine.

We’ve seen a pretty harsh example of this pan out right before our eyes with the opiate epidemic. The opiate epidemic started with doctors increasing their prescribing trends with opiate painkillers, mostly at the behest of pharma companies. That occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Today, doctors are still getting a bad rap for overprescribing opiates. But here’s what’s really surprising about that. As it turns out, the vast majority of overprescribing is caused by an extreme minority of doctors.

Opioid Overprescribing – A Deadly Trend

A small percentage of doctors are causing the majority of the overprescribing problem. We know this to be true because nearly half of all opioid doses and more than a quarter of all opioid prescriptions come from about one percent of doctors.

From 2003 to 2017, about 8.2 billion doses of opioids were prescribed by 669,495 providers. Nearly four million patients received those prescriptions. One would think that, since pain is a more or less universal physical problem and is experienced virtually everywhere, that one doctor would not end up prescribing a whole lot more opiates than any other doctor. If most patients across the nation experience pain in more or less the same way and to the same degree, why would one doctor write grossly more prescriptions for pain meds than other doctors?

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what happened. Of the 669,495 prescribing doctors, just 7,000 doctors across the U.S. accounted for 49 percent of all dosages prescribed and 27 percent of all prescriptions written.

It gets worse when we look at the actual figures on the dosages of pain meds handed out by the top one percent of prescribing doctors. If 8.2 billion doses of opioids were prescribed during the study period, and just one percent of prescribers were responsible for 47 percent of those doses, that means 7,000 doctors were responsible for about 3.8 billion prescriptions. That means each of the 7,000 doctors doled out about 550,000 doses of opiates in 14 years. That’s about 107 doses per doctor per day. What kind of doctor is seeing enough patients in severe pain to ethically justify handing out 107 doses of painkillers every day, seven days per week, 365 days per year?

Overprescribing Versus Correct Prescribing

The truth is, the vast majority of doctors do follow conservative prescribing guidelines when it comes to handing out painkiller prescriptions. That’s the good news.

And what are the guidelines on conservative prescribing? Several health advocacy groups and medical institutions have submitted data on this. Perhaps the best place to look is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as that group has monitored the opiate epidemic closely.

The CDC guidelines are worth examining in full. But to summarize them, they begin with the CDC encouraging doctors to prescribe painkillers only as a last resort after other methods of pain relief have already been tried. Then, the CDC goes on to recommend using the lowest dose of painkillers for the shortest period possible. The CDC strongly cautions doctors against putting patients on long-term opiate prescriptions, as that often leads to tolerance, a need for increased prescriptions, and, eventually, addiction and chemical dependence.


The opiate addiction epidemic taught the medical community a painful lesson. And now, thankfully, the majority of doctors follow conservative and cautious prescribing trends. That tells us the focus has to be on getting the one percent of prescribers to bring their prescribing trends down to the medically-advisable range.

A Note on Getting Informed

Let's not forget that the responsibility here does not just lie with medical practitioners. The American people, the ones who are receiving prescriptions for painkillers, must take on the role of getting informed on prescriptions. And this doesn’t just mean sitting there and listening to the doctor talk about the medication he or she is about to prescribe. It means doing our research, studying medicines, learning about what’s in them, getting second opinions, learning about the side effects of prescription drugs, finding natural alternatives to pain meds, etc.

Doctors can help us create healthier lives for ourselves and our families, but at the end of the day, we are the ones who are responsible for our health. That’s why we have to learn about the medicines we’re putting into our bodies.

We must push for conservative prescribing, and we should see to it that the 7,000 doctors who prescribe too many opiates are made to cease such dangerous activities. But no amount of prescribing rules or medical regulations are a fitting substitute for patients getting educated on what they need to do for the betterment of their health. And that includes getting informed on alternatives to painkillers.

Getting Help for Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction is a horrible crisis that affects millions of Americans. Thousands of Americans misuse prescription drugs for the first time every day. We live in a country now where people are just as likely if not more likely to fall prey to an addiction to pharmaceutical drugs as they are to become addicted to illegal street drugs.

Thankfully, there is a way out of addiction to prescription drugs. Narconon offers a unique path, a tested and proven approach to helping people overcome not only the cause of addiction but also the chemical dependence and behavioral reliance on drugs.

Thousands of people die from overdoses on prescription drugs every year. Don’t let your loved one become a statistic. If your son, daughter, grandchild, sibling, spouse, parent, or grandparent needs help with prescription drug addiction, contact Narconon today.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.