Attempts to stop clinicians who are suspected of overprescribing addictive drugs, such as amphetamines and opioids, through informative letters doesn’t appear to do the trick, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, along with colleagues at MIT, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the White House Social and Behavioral Team first determined top prescribers of addictive drugs to target. Data to identify them was collected through a database maintained by CMS. These clinicians, which numbered 1525, prescribed on average over 400% more controlled substances than their peers.

Half of the physicians were sent letters informing them of their high prescribing rates, while the other half received no communication. The researchers were unable to see a statistically significant decline in controlled substance prescribing rates after the letters were sent, they reported in the journal Health Affairs.

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“Even though we weren’t able to show that the letters were effective, this information is still useful for policymakers,” Adam Sacarny, PhD, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Mailman, said in a statement. “This is why it’s so important to rigorously test these interventions. Based on these results, we’re now experimenting with different letter designs and making other changes to see if another approach can yield reductions in overprescribing.”

The study is considered one of the first to evaluate the efficacy of an informative letter at reducing a potentially inappropriate medical practice. 

The team is also evaluating high prescribers of the atypical antipsychotic quetiapine (Seroquel). “This intervention uses better data and a redesigned letter to build as much as possible on the first round,” Dr Sacarny noted.


Sacarny A, Yokum D, Finkelstein A, Agrawal S. Medicare Letters To Curb Overprescribing Of Controlled Substances Had No Detectable Effect On Providers. Health Aff. 2016; 35(3):471-479.

This article originally appeared on Psychiatry Advisor