There’s a simple way to reduce the opioid epidemic gripping the country, according to new Cornell University research: Make doctors check their patients’ previous prescriptions.

The most significant response to the opioid epidemic comes from state governments. Nearly every state now has a database that tracks every prescription for opioids like OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin. Using these databases, doctors and pharmacists can retrieve a patient’s history to decide whether they are an opioid abuser before prescribing them drugs.

Such databases reduce opioid abuse among Medicare recipients – but only when laws require doctors to consult them, according to a Cornell health care economist and her colleague. Their study refutes previous research suggesting the databases have no effect on opioid abuse. The paper is forthcoming in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

“The main issue is getting providers to change their prescribing behavior. The majority of opioids that people abuse start in the medical system as a legitimate prescription,” said co-author Colleen Carey, assistant professor of policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology. Her co-author is Thomas Buchmueller of the University of Michigan.


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States that implemented a “must access” database saw a decline in the number of Medicare recipients who got more than a seven-months’ supply in a six-month period. And there was a decrease in those who filled a prescription before the previous prescription’s supply had been used.

“Doctor shopping” also dropped. Medicare opioid users who got prescriptions from five or more doctors — a common marker for “doctor shopping” — fell by 8 percent; the number of those who got opioids from five or more pharmacies declined by more than 15%.

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