The Opioid Risk Tool Has Been Inappropriately Weaponized

This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on September 21, 2019.

I was surprised and deeply disappointed to learn this week that people have been denied opioid prescriptions due to their responses on the Opioid Risk Tool (ORT). As a guest on the DPP Rally Talk Show with Claudia podcast, I heard from a caller who told me that her doctor denied her an opioid prescription based on her ORT answers.

One particular answer seems to have caused a problem: she acknowledged her history of experiencing preadolescent sexual abuse. Apparently, the doctor used that as a reason to deny her access to opioid therapy to treat her pain. This is a terrible misapplication of the tool.

Opioid Guidelines Recommend Risk Assessment

The ORT is a self-assessment tool I developed and published about 15 years ago.

The tool was developed at a time when we didn’t know the rate of opioid abuse in patients who were prescribed an opioid for noncancer pain. We needed a tool to help evaluate whether the risk of potential harm from opioids outweighed the good.

I never intended for doctors to use the ORT to determine who should or shouldn’t be prescribed an opioid. My goal was to help doctors identify patients who were at increased risk of misuse and addiction, so that they could receive more careful observation during treatment.

Since abuse and addiction are diagnosed by observing atypical behaviors, knowing which patients are at greatest risk for displaying those behaviors is useful in establishing appropriate levels of monitoring for abuse.

I was not alone in the belief that it was critical to assess patients for their risk potential.

In 2009, the American Pain Society and American Academy of Pain Medicine published a guideline for opioid prescribing. Its first recommendation stated, “Prior to initiating COT [Chronic Opioid Therapy], clinicians should conduct a history, physical examination, and appropriate testing, including an assessment of risk of substance abuse, misuse, or addiction.”

Then, in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s opioid-prescribing guideline recommended, “Before starting and periodically during continuation of opioid therapy, clinicians should evaluate risk factors for opioid-related harms.”

Several other opioid prescribing guidelines also recommended assessing patient risk before initiating therapy. These included the Washington State Department of Health, Utah Clinical Guidelines on Prescribing Opioids for Treatment of Pain, the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians (ASIPP) Opioid Guidelines, and others.

Sexual Abuse As a Risk Factor

Assessing the risk of developing opioid abuse is based on genetic and environmental factors, just as it is with other diseases. Accordingly, the ORT includes questions about family and personal history of substance abuse, since both areas contribute to genetic and environmental factors.

Genetics are estimated to contribute between 50 and 60% to an individual’s vulnerability to opioid addiction. By contrast, genetics contribute only about 30% to a person’s vulnerability to marijuana. A person with one addiction is seven times more likely to develop an addiction to a different class of drugs. So genetics plays a major role in determining who will, and who will not, develop an opioid use disorder (OUD). Additionally, life experiences — which are part of one’s environment — also play a role.

The ORT asks if there is a history of experiencing preadolescent sexual abuse. Preadolescent sexual abuse is believed to result in something clinically similar to post traumatic stress disorder.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has reported that 30 to 60% of women who are undergoing drug abuse treatment suffer from PTSD. One treatment center in New York City reports that more than 90% of women treated for substance abuse had experienced sexual or traumatic abuse.

According to another NIDA report, victims of rape were 10 times more likely to have abused heroin and other stimulants than the general population.

Finally, a study in 2000 showed that a history of suffering preadolescent sexual abuse tripled the risk of drug use disorders.

Many other studies have corroborated these studies, showing that preadolescent sexual abuse is a risk factor for substance abuse later in life. The most important of these is the seminal CDCKaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experience Study.

Misapplication of the ORT

Environmental and genetic factors should influence how closely a patient’s opioid use is monitored. However, a history of experiencing preadolescent sexual abuse does not mean a person will necessarily develop an OUD. It is only a risk factor. It does not determine the outcome of using opioids, although it may partially indicate the level of monitoring, support, and education that would be appropriate.

It is a cruel misapplication of the ORT to use a background of sexual abuse as the only criterion to assess whether a patient should receive opioid therapy. The ORT is an important tool in mitigating harm that prescribing opioids could cause. It should not be weaponized to justify denying people in pain appropriate therapy.

Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.



  1. BethAnn Shoenfeld on September 21, 2019 at 11:37 pm

    Women who have been sexually abused, are more likely to suffer from Chronic Pain.

  2. Mike on September 21, 2019 at 11:54 pm

    Thank God for people like you who speaks out against those that are doing this “one size fits all” program.

  3. Mona on September 22, 2019 at 6:14 am

    There is no such thing as a “psychological disease”. The psyche is non-physical. The mind cannot get sick. The brain can, but the mind cannot. Where on earth did they ever get such an oxymoronic term?

  4. Candi on September 22, 2019 at 6:22 am

    Doctors are using anything they can so they won’t have to prescribe opioid medicine now because of the hysteria the govt created now with this supposed crisis. The opioid crisis is illegal street drugs. But pain patients are the one’s who are paying since the govt made this out to mean opioids = pain pills. When its really the street drugs “opioids” that people are oding & dying from. The doctors are SO afraid to prescribe opioid medication now that they’re using any & all excuses they can. Insane!!!

  5. Candi on September 22, 2019 at 6:56 am

    I think PTSD actually makes someone more cautious of things. At least the people I know that have it are. & they are some of the most cautious people about being careful on how much meds they’re taking. Several people(men & women) that I know where on a higher dose of pain meds a couple years ago. But they have gradually decreased it & are now on just a minimal dose. So I don’t know that I agree that someone who has PTSD would be more likely to abuse the medicine or become addicted to it. I think we should ALL be treated individually since we are all different.

  6. Michael p Flegel on October 5, 2019 at 11:13 pm

    The answer is a modern day second amendment. Why do doctors hide in the broom closet and pretend nothing they can do while most ppl want to jump in front of a train,? Get a damn union together before the next suicide. Don’t come to work tomorrow as a group . Save us and save yourself. I never knew doctors as a group were such cowards!!!

  7. Julu on October 6, 2019 at 3:31 am

    Luckily I have a doctor who still prescribes for my severe chronic pancreatitis and EPI. I get only 1/3 of what I used to get but it’s better than nothing. I am with Kaiser and am low income. They have a program where everything is paid. I pay nothing for copays tests or meds until this month. Suddenly I got a bill for the pain medication that my doctor orders. This is pure and simple discrimination. I was also treated like an addict when I went to a new dentist to have a tooth pulled. He reiterated over and over again that he couldn’t give me pain meds. I didn’t ask for any. Not for a simple extraction. I’m glad I’m old and won’t have to endure this abuse for too much longer. This cruel insanity has to end.

  8. Robert Lewis on October 7, 2019 at 8:50 pm

    What exactly are Doctors afraid of? As far as I can see no laws have changed. I am ready to start legal stuff

  9. Jason Helms on October 9, 2019 at 7:32 pm

    Thank you, this was very informative.
    Being a patient of knee joint pain I have been to mostly all the doctors of middletown physical therapy and pain management
    and there medicines seemed to help me temporarily. Currently my doctor is and he has recommended me thermotherapy. Which has been quite helpful for me. The icing might help in injuries but I believe it would cause more pain if applied for joint pain.

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