Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in the United States, and sometimes a physician may be negligent by prescribing a dangerous drug to a patient at risk. There have been a number of lawsuits in the news as a result of alleged medical negligence in prescribing.
One problem arises when a doctor prescribes a narcotic to a patient who may be dependent upon narcotics or may be abusing them. Why would a physician be negligent? Today, most states keep detailed prescribing records of scheduled drugs, and in some states, before writing a narcotic, a physician is obligated to check the state database to determine if the patient has been “doctor-shopping,” or visiting a number of physicians to acquire a steady supply of narcotic drugs. This happens more frequently than the general public might imagine, and, because physicians are vested with the power to prescribe powerful drugs, they have the responsibility to prescribe cautiously and responsibly.
Some patients are just a red flag for physicians. Some doctors refer to these patients as “frequent fliers.” At one time, emergency departments would keep a card file with these patients, but that practice has been outlawed. In its place, however, there is a computerized registry that can be easily accessed by physicians to determine with some likelihood if a patient is abusing his or her prescriptions.
Overdose death drugs rise yearly, and in 2010, 38,329 people died of drug doses in this country, according to the US Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics. This number is triple the number of overdose deaths from drugs since 1990.
Some of these overdose deaths are obviously the result of illicit drug use. Heroin is a scourge in the Midwest and Northeast. Many heroin addicts, who are by and large a young population, get their start with prescription drug experimentation, often stealing drugs from their parents or grandparents. Many older people in the country complain of chronic pain disorders, and, rather than prescribing physical therapy, non-narcotic analgesics, or topical treatments, doctors today tend to write prescriptions for narcotics. This trend is a real change, as narcotics were primarily limited in the past to patients suffering from cancer pain.
Prescription drug overdoses are usually unintentional, with 74% of prescription drug overdoses resulting from accidental ingestion. Many overdoses occur in people who are treated by their doctors with a combination of narcotics and sedatives. This practice is quite dangerous.
Although hospitals and pharmacies have tightened restrictions on prescribing, it is still relatively simple for many people to obtain a large supply of painkillers or anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax or Ativan. Many times, doctors feel pressured by their patients to prescribe these medications. In some Emergency Departments, patients are given surveys to rate their service. Since doctors are dependent upon these surveys for employment, they are frequently afraid to deny narcotics to patients who may be drug abusers or addicts. At the same time, doctors don’t want to deny pain medications to patients who may legitimately be suffering.
Although the FDA requires the manufacturers of opioid drugs, like Vicodin or Oxycontin, to provide education for doctors, their track record is poor. In the past, knowing the risks of addiction and overdose, pharmaceutical representatives continued to encourage physicians to over-prescribe.
Plaintiffs have been successful in lawsuits against physicians who have prescribed dangerous drugs irresponsibly. An Alabama widower won $500,000 in a lawsuit after his wife died of an overdose from narcotics and sedative-hypnotic drugs. A nurse in Mississippi died of an overdose in the hospital when her doctor prescribed one opiate when she was already under the influence of another powerful opiate. The combination caused her to stop breathing.
Doctors who are specialists in pain management should be especially careful, as they are often responsible for the prescription of powerful and addictive drugs over an extended period of time. These physicians should be especially careful by screening their patients for drug abuse or addiction, and they should sign a pain contract, which allows them to terminate care if patients obtain narcotics from another physician. However, after signing such a contract, they should also check the state registry to be certain the patient is compliant.
If you or a family member has suffered as a result of negligent prescribing practices by your doctor, you may have legal recourse. Consult on of our Chicago malpractice attorneys today at 312-527-4500 for a free consultation.