New research from Goizueta’s Diwas KC unpacks the dual impact of Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs on opioid prescriptions and heroin overdose deaths.

More than two million individuals in the US are experiencing Opioid Use Disorder (OUD). The CDC defines OUD as “a problematic pattern of opioid use that causes significant impairment or distress.”

Around 130 people die of opioid overdoses every day. Perhaps more startlingly, four million people over the age of 12 have reported using pain medication recreationally, including opioids. Prescription opioids are a highly-regulated class of drug. They interact with the opioid receptors on nerve cells throughout the body, as well as the brain, which reduces the intensity of pain signals to the body.

For many, they are a necessary prescription to get through the pain of surgery or injury, as the body heals itself. Unfortunately, the function of opioids in the body—releasing endorphins and boosting feelings of pleasure, as well as reducing pain—also make them highly addictive.

PDMP: A Successful Federal Mandate

The United States continues to see increases in deaths from opioid overdoses. So, federal and state governments have been working in enact policies that are designed to decrease those fatalities. One of the methods states are using to prevent common abuse patterns like “doctor shopping,” which is the pattern of visiting multiple physicians to obtain prescriptions, is the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP), designed to be used in conjunction with Health Information Technology (HIT) programs. PDMP serve two purposes: identifying drug-seeking behaviors in patients, and identifying physicians with patterns of inappropriate prescribing.

Nearly all 50 states have enacted PDMPs of some degree. Some programs require physicians to check the PDMP before prescribing restricted pharmaceuticals, but in others it’s only suggested. Intrastate communication between PDMPs is not always possible, however.

The Unintended Consequences

The use of PDMPs has been shown to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions, the intended outcome of the program. Enter a recently published study by Diwas KC, Goizueta Foundation Term Professor of Information Systems & Operations Management. The research shows that during time the research was conducted, prescriptions for opioids declined by 6.1%.

However, the research also brought to light a very serious and unintended consequence of the implementation of PDMPs. The study concluded that while the implementation of PDMPs did reduce opioid prescriptions, it did not reduce overall numbers of prescription opioid deaths. In fact, it may have contributed to a 50% increase in heroin overdose fatalities.

“The heroin increase was definitely something we were not expecting, it was a total surprise,” says KC.

It was something that we had hypothesized. You’ve got a bunch of individuals who have used prescription opiates and had presumably been dependent. Now with the passage of this PDMP law, it has become more difficult to obtain prescription opiates. Therefore, some people might be forced to turn to the street version of it.

Diwas KC

“We didn’t expect the effect size it to be as significant as it is,” says KC.

Heroin and commonly prescribed opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone are very similar on a biochemical level. What’s more, they generate a similar sensation in the body, according to KC. That’s why he and his team had the initial hypothesis that some addicted individuals, when unable to get prescription medication, might turn to street drugs, which are much more dangerous on many levels.

“There are many aspects to this. One has to do with the potency and the toxicity of the things you get on the streets. There are very little checks and balances on those. There’s no control in quality for sure,” KC says. He also notes the lack of checks and balances on the frequency of usage. “So the frequency of usage, the quality of the substances you’re putting inside your body, and possibly the circumstances of acquiring it might also be very risky too.”

A Dual Impact

The research concludes that mandating PDMP use is an example of a successful use of policy for intervention. It does, in fact, decrease the number of opioid prescriptions available to patients. That’s critical information for policy makers and physicians to take in. And it’s a solid reason to keep using and expanding PDMP usage, according to KC.

I should point out very clearly that the policy did have the intended effect of reducing prescriptions. So, it definitely benefited people who might otherwise have become addicted.

Diwas KC

“By reducing unnecessary prescriptions it might have limited the number of people who would have gotten hooked on the drugs in the first place. So there’s definitely the benefit of that,” says KC. “It’s just that when the policy was implemented, there was also this side effect because of people who were already using it. So, when those people were forced to look for alternatives, that’s when things got bad.”

Research papers like this one show an important side of using data to mark successes and failures of government policies. Taken on the surface, data can show a policy’s impact for the greater good. But a deeper dive into the surrounding data—like the increase in heroin use after the implementation of PDMPs—gives everyone a better idea of the full impact of this mandate.

Policies have intended as well as unintended consequences. In this case of PDMP it had the desired effect of reducing prescriptions. That probably helped a lot of people not get addicted to opiates in the first place.

Diwas KC

“But sometimes policies also have unintended consequences,” says KC. “Like in the case of people who were already addicted to painkillers suddenly stopping it, causing them to take drastic actions, and that’s what happened for some of the people in the study. Policies need to consider the possibility of unintended consequences and take actions to also mitigate those unintended consequences.”

Goizueta faculty apply their expertise and knowledge to solving problems that society—and the world—face. Learn more about faculty research at Goizueta.