It’s hard to imagine that a doctor would do anything to put a patient in harm’s way since they build their entire career on doing the exact opposite.
However, doctors are increasingly facing charges when their patients overdose on opioids that they prescribed. In June of this year, an Oklahoma doctor was charged with five counts of secondary murder for prescribing opioids with “extreme disregard of human life.”
While America is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, it’s important to investigate all possible causes behind the rise in opioid related deaths. But does this really mean doctors are to blame for their patients’ overdoses?
Holding doctors accountable for overdose
In 2015, Dr. Hsiu-Yung Tseng was the first doctor convicted of murder in connection with three prescription overdose deaths. Although there have only been a handful of cases since then, it does not mean that there aren’t more to come.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration took action against 479 doctors in 2016, and this number doesn’t include doctors who were sued via a civil suit. This is a staggering increase from previous years. In 2011, the Administration only took action against 88 doctors.
These high profile stories do a good job of keeping America’s opioid epidemic in the forefront of everyone’s mind, but they are rare and only scratch the surface of the deeper issue.
“The well-meaning doctors and dentists are the bigger part of our problem [opioid epidemic],” stated Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. “They’re inadvertently getting patients addicted, and they’re also stocking homes with a highly addictive drug.”
Inadvertent or not, overprescribing opioid painkillers is causing a lot of pain and suffering in America where an overdose is now the leading cause of unintentional death.
Some also point the finger at big pharmaceutical companies who forcefully marketed opioids to doctors while downplaying their addictive nature in order to sell more drugs. Purdue Pharma, the distributor of OxyContin, admitted to this in 2007 and immediately entered into a multi-million dollar settlement with the federal government.
Despite the role big pharmaceutical companies might play, doctors have an obligation to patients. An obligation that many feel is not being met, and the reasons are becoming clearer. A recent study showed that 91 percent of people who survive an overdose are still able to get another opioid prescription, typically from their same prescribing doctor.
In an article by CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he stated: “not only are we [doctors] failing to learn and make progress, it seems we are turning a blind eye to the tragedies unfolding right in front of us.”
Is overdose really anyone’s fault?
Although doctors are highly educated, this does not mean that they can predict which of their patients will become addicted to opioids.
Additionally, most people suffering from an opioid addiction will get their drugs from a family member or friend according to the Centers for Disease Control. While a doctor can take every precaution to ensure that the patient they’re prescribing opioids to is less likely to become addicted, they cannot account for their patients giving away their prescription to someone who is more vulnerable to the disease.
When someone dies from an opioid overdose, it is a terrible tragedy. In the midst of all the sadness, family and friends often want to hold someone accountable for their loss. For many in this situation, it can feel easy to place the blame on the doctor who wrote the prescription for the drug that they feel caused the death of their loved one. Unfortunately, this misguided blame can overshadow the reality of the situation. A prescription for opioids can’t kill someone, but addiction can.
What are doctors doing to end the opioid epidemic
America is in the middle of an opioid epidemic and while assigning blame might help ease the pain for some, it does nothing to stop the rising death toll. So what are doctors actually doing to help combat this national emergency?
For their part, Dr. Denise K. Sur says that she’s seeing more and more doctors referring patients that they feel are vulnerable to addiction to a pain specialist. Not only are pain specialists better equipped to screen for addiction, they can also offer alternative methods to treating pain for those who are suffering from an addiction or are at risk for suffering from an addiction. Taking the extra time to refer patients to a specialist makes it possible for them to receive the treatment they need without having to take a highly addictive opioid.
In August 2016, the U.S. surgeon general wrote a letter to every doctor in the United States urging them to help solve the opioid epidemic. With every letter mailed, Dr. Vivek Murthy included a card with tips for prescribing opioids. The card advises physicians to never prescribe opioids as the first-line treatment for chronic pain and to always consider if non-opioid therapies, such as exercise or physical therapy, might be more appropriate.
“First, we will educate ourselves to treat pain safely and effectively,” states Surgeon General Murthy, in his letter to all U.S. doctors. “Second, we will screen our patients for opioid use disorder and provide or connect them with evidence-based treatment. Third, we can shape how the rest of the country sees addiction by talking about and treating it as a chronic illness, not a moral failing.”
What can the average citizen do to combat the opioid epidemic
Just as Dr. Vivek Murthy urged doctors to educate themselves, we all must do the same.
We need to better educate ourselves on the realities of addiction so when we see a loved one suffering, we are better equipped to help them. This means understanding that addiction is never a choice, it’s a disease. A disease that requires professional help in order to provide someone with an addiction the best chance at recovery.
On a more pragmatic level, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Diversion Control provides a comprehensive guide on how to dispose of unused opioids safely. This will help prevent the build up of opioids that can be easily accessed in medicine cabinets across the country.
Overdose is the symptom to America’s much larger addiction problem. While no one can be the cause of someone else’s addiction, we can all be a part of the solution.
If you have any questions or fear a loved one might have an addiction, an Vertava Health Treatment Specialist is available 24/7 at 877-451-1756.