clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How well-intentioned doctors helped create the opioid epidemic

 “I have caused harm.”

Illustration of person lying in a sea of pills Angie Wang

For a big chunk of the 20th century, doctors were really, really wary of opioids. They knew the drugs were addictive, and they mostly steered clear of them.

But by the end of the 1990s, doctors were prescribing opioids in huge quantities.

How did we make that shift?

We hear one version of this story a lot — a story about big pharma and dirty doctors pushing dangerous, addictive drugs. And yes, that’s part of it. But there’s also a policy story here.

On this episode of The Impact, we explore a story about well-meaning doctors trying to do the best thing for their patients. These doctors developed and spread new policies that urged all other doctors to treat pain way more seriously. Those well-intentioned policies did not go as planned. They helped create the nationwide opioid epidemic we’re dealing with today.

For more on doctors’ role in the opioid epidemic, read Sarah’s piece from earlier this year.

Subscribe to The Impact! Leave us a rating and a review, or email us your feedback at

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.