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

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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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of general internal medicine
StateAccepted/In press - Jan 1 2020



  • nurse practitioner
  • opioid epidemic
  • opioid prescribing
  • physician assistant
  • primary care providers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine

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