Clinician Perspectives on Opioid Treatment Agreements: A Qualitative Analysis of Focus Groups

AJOB Empirical Bioethics (ahead of print):1-12 (2023)
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BACKGROUND Patients with chronic pain face significant barriers in finding clinicians to manage long-term opioid therapy (LTOT). For patients on LTOT, it is increasingly common to have them sign opioid treatment agreements (OTAs). OTAs enumerate the risks of opioids, as informed consent documents would, but also the requirements that patients must meet to receive LTOT. While there has been an ongoing scholarly discussion about the practical and ethical implications of OTA use in the abstract, little is known about how clinicians use them and if OTAs themselves modify clinician prescribing practices. OBJECTIVE To determine how clinicians use OTAs and the potential impacts of OTAs on opioid prescribing. DESIGN We conducted qualitative analysis of four focus groups of clinicians from a large Midwestern academic medical center. Groups were organized according to self-identified prescribing patterns: two groups for clinicians who identified as prescribers of LTOT, and two who did not. PARTICIPANTS 17 clinicians from General Internal Medicine, Family Medicine, and Palliative Care were recruited using purposive, convenience sampling. APPROACH Discussions were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed for themes using reflexive thematic analysis by a multidisciplinary team. KEY RESULTS Our analysis identified three main themes: (1) OTAs did not influence clinicians’ decisions whether to use LTOT generally but did shape clinical decision-making for individual patients; (2) clinicians feel OTAs intensify the power they have over patients, though this was not uniformly judged as harmful; (3) there is a potential misalignment between the intended purposes of OTAs and their implementation. CONCLUSION This study reveals a complicated relationship between OTAs and access to pain management. While OTAs seem not to impact the clinicians’ decisions about whether to use LTOT generally, they do sometimes influence prescribing decisions for individual patients. Clinicians shared complex views about OTAs’ purposes, which shows the need for more clarity about how OTAs could be used to promote shared decision-making, joint accountability, informed consent, and patient education.

Author Profiles

Nathan Richards
McGill University
Dana Howard
Ohio State University
Larisa Svirsky
University of Toronto, St. George Campus


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