Setting Expectations, Following Orders, Safety, and Standardization: Clinicians’ Strategies to Guide Difficult Conversations About Opioid Prescribing

Jessica J. Wyse, Linda Ganzini, Steven K. Dobscha, Erin E. Krebs, Benjamin J. Morasco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Background: Evidence has continued to accumulate regarding the potential risks of treating chronic pain with long-term opioid therapy (LTOT). Clinical practice guidelines now encourage clinicians to implement practices designed to reduce opioid-related risks. Yet how clinicians implement these guidelines within the context of the patient encounter has received little attention. Objective: This secondary analysis aimed to identify and describe clinicians’ strategies for managing prescription opioid misuse and aberrant behaviors among patients prescribed LTOT for chronic pain. Design: Individual interviews guided by a semi-structured interview protocol probed: (1) methods clinicians utilize to reduce prescription opioid misuse and address aberrant opioid-related behaviors; (2) how clinicians respond to misuse; and (3) resources and constraints faced in managing and treating misuse among their patients. Participants: Interviews were conducted with 24 physicians and nurse practitioners, representing 22 Veterans Health Administration (VA) facilities across the USA, who had one or more patients in their clinical panels who were prescribed LTOT for the treatment of chronic non-cancer pain. Approach: Qualitative content analysis was the analytic approach utilized. A codebook was developed iteratively following group coding and discussion. All transcripts were coded with the finalized codebook. Quotes pertaining to key themes were retrieved and, following careful review, sorted into themes, which were then further categorized into sub-themes. Quotes that exemplified key sub-themes were selected for inclusion. Key Results: We detail the challenges clinicians describe in navigating conversations with patients around prescription opioid misuse, which include patient objection as well as clinician ambivalence. We identify verbal heuristics as one strategy clinicians utilize to structure these difficult conversations, and describe four heuristics: setting expectations, following orders, safety, and standardization. Conclusion: Clinicians frequently use verbal heuristics to routinize and increase the efficiency of care management discussions related to opioid prescribing, redirect responsibility, and defuse the potential emotional charge of the encounter.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1200-1206
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of general internal medicine
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 15 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding Research reported in this manuscript was financially supported by an award from the US Food & Drug Administration (FD004508). The work was also financially supported by resources from the VA Health Services Research & Development-funded Center to Improve Veteran Involvement in Care at the VA Portland Health Care System (CIN 13-404).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, Society of General Internal Medicine (This is a U.S. government work and not under copyright protection in the U.S.; foreign copyright protection may apply).


  • chronic pain
  • opioid discontinuation
  • opioid prescribing


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