New Study Finds Significant Changes in Physician Opioid Prescribing Patterns


CHICAGO, March 14, 2019 — A new study that was recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine revealed significant variations in physicians’ opioid prescribing practices with some reassuring shifts but also with room for improvement. The analysis was based on Blue Cross Blue Shield Axis® (BCBS Axis) – the largest collection of commercial insurance claims, medical professional and cost of care information – through a secure data portal, and was led by Harvard Medical School researchers.

The study found:

  • Monthly rate of first-time opioid prescriptions declined by 54 percent, amounting to nearly 110,000 fewer new opioid prescriptions from July 2012 to December 2017.
  • Nearly 30 percent of medical professionals chose not to prescribe opioids to patients who had never had them before, while others continued to prescribe dosages and durations that put patients at risk.
  • The results highlight the need for physicians to tailor opioid prescribing to the inidual.

“The challenge behind the opioid crisis is finding the balance between providing those who need pain relief with the necessary medicines, while also ensuring patients are not prescribed potentially dangerous doses and durations of opioids,” said study lead investigator Nicole Maestas, Ph.D., professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. “The data revealed that while the health care community has made progress in curbing this epidemic, there is still a lot that needs to be done.”

The Harvard Medical School researchers, along with eight other leading U.S. institutions and health research programs, are members of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Alliance for Health Research (BCBS Alliance).

“The research team’s findings will provide the medical and health care community with a better understanding of the impact of opioid prescriptions on first-time opioid users, providing needed insight on how we can better fight this devastating epidemic,” said Maureen Sullivan, chief strategy and innovation officer for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. “With a commitment to transparency that delivers insight, working with Harvard and the eight other prestigious institutions participating in the Alliance, the ultimate goal is to analyze and learn from critical health issues and find meaningful solutions that improve care quality and affordability for all Americans.”

“In research, access to rich data is invaluable in generating meaningful insights that can reveal patterns that inform evidence-based policies and decisions,” said Michael Chernew, professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School. “Participating in the BCBS Alliance has provided us with access to just such data that has exceptionally wide representation across the country.” 

The BCBS Alliance was established in 2016 to engage leading U.S. health care researchers to explore key questions and topics using BCBS Axis data. The researchers involved in this program come together periodically to share insights and discuss critical health and health system issues, helping advance improvements in health care nationwide. Participants in the BCBS Alliance include: Harvard Medical School, Princeton University, Rice University, Scripps Research Translational Institute, Stanford University, University of California Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Oklahoma and Yale University. For more information on the BCBS Alliance, visit

To read more about the report, visit 

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The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association is a national federation of 36 independent, community-based and locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies that collectively provide health care coverage for one in three Americans. BCBSA provides health care insights through The Health of America Report series and the national BCBS Health Index. For more information on BCBSA and its member companies, please visit We also encourage you to connect with us on Facebook, check out our videoson YouTube, follow us on Twitter.

SOURCE Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association

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