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March 23, 2022
David Burda
Innovation Outcomes Policy

What State Opioid Laws Can Teach Us About Provider Behaviors

I prefer market innovation to legislation and competition to regulation. Why? Because self-motivation is a force more powerful that anything you can ever write into law or codify in a set of rules. What you’re self-motivated to do — good or evil — is another story.

A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrates how that theory plays out in healthcare and shows how even the most well-intentioned state laws can have little effect on provider and patient behavior. You can download the study here.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan and Cornell wanted to know if state laws designed to curb overprescribing of opioids by providers to patients worked. The short answer is no.

Here are the study details. The researchers looked at prescribing patterns in 13 states that passed laws between 2010 and 2017 to help control opioid use. The state laws did things like limit the number of prescriptions, limit the size of prescriptions, require prescribers to enroll in the state’s prescription drug monitoring program and require prescribers to check the program before they prescribed an opioid.

The researchers then looked at how those laws affected the number of opioid prescriptions received by non-cancer patients two years after each law took effect. The pool was about two million commercially insured adults age 18 or older suffering from chronic pain conditions like back pain, arthritis, headaches, fibromyalgia and/or neuropathic pain.

According to the researchers, the laws had a “non-statistically significant” impact on the percentage of patients receiving any opioid prescription, the percentage of patients receiving guideline-recommended non-opioid alternative pain killers or the average daily or monthly supply of opioids per patient.

“We did not find an association between state opioid prescribing laws and receipt of opioid prescriptions or guideline-concordant nonopioid pain treatments among commercially insured adults,” the researchers concluded.

And the big question is why?

The researchers suggested that the answer is people, or, as I said in the lede, self-motivation.

“The findings suggest that the decreasing volume of opioid prescribing in the United States may be driven more by shifting clinical guidelines, professional norms, or other factors than by these state laws,” they said.

You can’t make providers do the right things through legislation and regulation. Like all businesses, you have to incent them to do the right things, so they are self-motivated to do the right things. If you want safer care, pay for safer care. If you want better outcomes, pay for better outcomes.

It’s really not that complicated.

Thanks for reading.

About the Author

David Burda

Dave Burda began covering healthcare in 1983 and hasn’t stopped since. Dave writes this monthly column “Burda on Healthcare,” contributes weekly blog posts, manages our weekly newsletter 4sight Friday, and hosts our weekly Roundup podcast. Dave believes that healthcare is a business like any other business, and customers — patients — are king. If you do what’s right for patients, good business results will follow.

Dave’s personal experiences with the healthcare system both as a patient and family caregiver have shaped his point of view. It’s also been shaped by covering the industry for 35 years as a reporter and editor. He worked at Modern Healthcare for 25 years, the last 11 as editor.

Prior to Modern Healthcare, he did stints at the American Medical Record Association (now AHIMA) and the American Hospital Association. After Modern Healthcare, he wrote a monthly column for Twin Cities Business explaining healthcare trends to a business audience, and he developed and executed content marketing plans for leading healthcare corporations as the editorial director for healthcare strategies at MSP Communications.

When he’s not reading and writing about healthcare, Dave spends his time riding the trails of DuPage County, IL, on his bike, tending his vegetable garden and daydreaming about being a lobster fisherman in Maine. He lives in Wheaton, IL, with his lovely wife of 35 years and his three children, none of whom want to be journalists or lobster fishermen.


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