More Opioid Prescriptions, More Money For Doctors?

By Beth Leipholtz 03/13/18

A new study uncovered some disturbing information about the financial relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies.

Businessman with money handshaking with doctor isolated on white background

Doctors could be prescribing opioids in order to make more money, according to a new study. 

The study, conducted by CNN and researchers at Harvard University, discovered that manufacturers of opioids are paying physicians, so that the more opioids a doctor prescribes, the more money that doctor makes. 

According to CNN, in 2014 and 2015, opioid manufacturers reportedly paid hundreds of U.S. doctors a six-figure sum for speaking, consulting and other services. In that same timeframe, thousands of other doctors were paid more than $25,000. The physicians who prescribe large quantities of opioids were more likely to be paid.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a senior scientist at the Institute for Behavioral Health at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, tells CNN that this information is important to acknowledge. Kolodny is also co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at the university and the executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.

"This is the first time we've seen this, and it's really important," he said. "It smells like doctors being bribed to sell narcotics, and that's very disturbing.”

Researchers at Harvard tell CNN that it’s not clear if the money paid to doctors encourages them to prescribe a certain company’s medication or whether the pharmaceutical companies identify and reward doctors who are already prescribing the medication in high amounts. 

"I don't know if the money is causing the prescribing or the prescribing led to the money, but in either case, it's potentially a vicious cycle,” Dr. Michael Barnett, assistant professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told CNN. “It's cementing the idea for these physicians that prescribing this many opioids is creating value." 

In conducting this study, CNN and researchers studied two federal government databases, one of which tracks payments by drug companies to doctors. The other tracks prescriptions doctors write to Medicare recipients. 

According to CNN, the years examined were 2014 and 2015, during which more than 811,000 doctors wrote prescriptions to Medicare patients. Almost 50% of those doctors wrote at least one prescription for opioids. Of those, 54% received a payment from an opioid-manufacturing pharmaceutical company. 

CNN also states that among physicians in the 25th percentile of opioid prescribers by volume, 72% were recipients of payment. Of those in the top fifth percentile, 84% were paid. And, of those in the top tenth of 1%, 95% received payments. 

Additionally, physicians whose volume of opioid prescriptions ranked in the top 5% nationally were paid twice as much from manufacturers in comparison to other doctors whose volume of prescription was in the median. CNN also states that on average, doctors in the top tenth of 1% received nine times more money than the average doctor. 

CNN states that while it's legal to pay doctors for speaking, consulting and other services, it is illegal for doctors to prescribe a medication in exchange for “kickback payments from a manufacturer.”

For more information on this study click here

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.