“Doctor and pharmacy shopping”: A fading signal for prescription opioid use monitoring?

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8 Scopus citations


Background: The term “doctor and pharmacy shopping” colloquially describes patients with high multiple provider episodes (MPEs)-a threshold count of distinct prescribers and/or pharmacies involved in prescription fulfillment. Opioid-related MPEs are implicated in the global opioid crisis and heavily monitored by government databases such as U.S. state prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs). We applied a widely-used MPE definition to examine U.S. trends from a large, commercially-insured population from 2010 to 2017. Further, we examined the proportion of enrollees identified as “doctor shoppers” with evidence of a cancer diagnosis to examine the risk of false positives. Methods: Using a large, commercially-insured population, we identified patients with opioid-related MPEs: opioid prescriptions (Schedule II-V, no buprenorphine) filled from ≥5 prescribers AND ≥ 5 pharmacies within the past 90 days (“5x5x90d”). Quarterly rates per 100,000 enrollees (two specifications) were calculated between 2010 and 2017. We examined the trend in a recently published all-payer, 7 state cohort from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for comparison. Cancer-related ICD-9/10-CM codes were used. Results: Quarterly MPE rates declined by approximately 73 % from 18.2–4.9 per 100,000 enrollee population with controlled substance prescriptions. In 2017, nearly one fifth of these commercially-insured enrollees identified by the 5x5x90d algorithm were diagnosed with cancer. Approximately 8% of this sample included patients with ≥ 1 buprenorphine prescriptions. Conclusions: Opioid “shopping” flags are a long-standing but rapidly fading PDMP signal. To avoid unintended consequences, such as identifying legitimate medical encounters requiring high healthcare utilization or opioid treatment, while maintaining vigilance, more nuanced and sophisticated approaches are needed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number108618
JournalDrug and Alcohol Dependence
StatePublished - Apr 1 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier B.V.


  • Doctor shopping
  • Opioid abuse
  • Prescription drug monitoring programs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Pharmacology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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