One Percent of Doctors Responsible for 25 Percent of Opiate Prescriptions

Counting prescriptions
Photo by wdstock/

There is no question that through much of the late-1990s and into the early and mid-2000s, opioid prescribing in the U.S. surged as pharmaceutical companies launched new opioid painkillers and urged doctors to prescribe them en masse. And while many pharma companies that urged prescribers to push their pills on patients are now coming under serious litigation for the role those companies played in launching the opiate crisis, the U.S. is still mired in an extremely dangerous opiate addiction epidemic.

Some pharma companies are now being held accountable, but what about the doctors? In fact, research data has shown us that it was just a small percentage of medical practitioners prescribing huge numbers of painkillers, with much of the medical community doing their best to prescribe painkillers safely.

What are the numbers on this? And will it be possible to lower prescribing rates to save Americans from addiction risk?

Statistics on Prescribing Rates

Opioid prescribing is far higher in the U.S. than it is in comparable nations, hence the importance of examining what is causing soaring prescribing trends. And while all doctors should be adequately educated and informed on safe prescribing, it’s worth noting that most medical practitioners are already making an effort at safe and conservative prescribing.

According to data from the British Medical Journal, about one percent of U.S. prescribers account for almost half of the total opioid doses prescribed, and more than 25 percent of all opioid prescriptions written.

The researchers examined data gathered by a large, national insurance provider covering some 60 million individuals between 2003 and 2017. During that period, an average of 8.2 billion doses of opioids were prescribed by about 669,495 medical providers to some 3.9 million patients per year.

Examining just the data from 2017, the top one percent of medical providers accounted for 49 percent of all opioid doses prescribed and 27 percent of all prescriptions written. Numerically, that means only about 6,500 prescribing doctors were each responsible for prescribing about 748,000 doses in 2017 alone.

Not only were these doctors prescribing massive quantities of opioids, the individual dosages they prescribed far exceeded safe prescribing guidelines. According to the report, more than two-fifths of all prescriptions written by the top-prescribing doctors exceeded the recommended dosages and recommended prescription duration per the CDC guidelines on safe prescribing.

From the study authors, “Most prescriptions written by the majority of providers are below recommended thresholds, suggesting that most U.S. providers are careful in their prescribing. However, a small portion of providers account for a highly disproportionate proportion of opioids.”

The Harm of Opioid Painkiller Addiction

There is no doubt that much of the current addiction crisis in the United States came about due to opioid painkiller addiction, which was mostly the result of a massive increase in the production, promotion, distribution, and prescribing of opioid analgesics.

Young woman holding and looking on a pill.
                                    Photo by hoozone/

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 18 million Americans (more than six percent of the population over the age of 12) have misused prescription painkillers in the past year. About two million Americans misuse these drugs for the first time each year, which comes out to about 5,480 Americans experimenting with such drugs for the first time every day.

Millions of Americans are addicted to prescription painkillers, even though these drugs are completely legal and are supposed to help people.

Because prescription painkillers are fully legal, widely promoted as being safe, and are medically recommended in many scenarios, there is not a very high degree of perceived risk in such drugs. Yet there is quite a bit of risk in taking them, and this misconception about them makes people feel as though they can experiment with such drugs without having any adverse outcomes.

According to the CDC, from 1999 to 2018, about 232,000 people died in the United States from overdoses involving prescription opioids. This problem is getting much worse, too, as prescription opioid overdoses were four times higher in 2018 than in 1999.

Addiction Treatment—What to Do if a Loved One Becomes Addicted to Their Pills

Even if a physician is prescribing pain relievers ethically, there is still a chance that a patient may become hooked on those drugs. Opioid painkillers are addictive, and while the physician can reduce addiction risk by following safe prescribing guidelines for his or her patients, the only way for the patients to eliminate risk completely is to not take such drugs at all.

If you know someone who has fallen prey to an addiction to prescription drugs, the best solution for them will be to get off those drugs with residential drug and alcohol treatment programs.

Opiates are the leading cause of overdose deaths in the U.S. and much of the world, hence the importance of treating opioid addiction as soon as possible. Even if your loved one was prescribed painkillers for a legitimate physical condition, if they are now dependent on those drugs and self-medicating with them, it's essential they get help and find alternative options. Call Narconon today to take the first step towards helping your loved one get their life back.


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.