Drug overdoses from potent painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin and other prescription drugs now cause more deaths than cocaine and heroin combined. According to the Los Angeles Times, law enforcement officials have not focused enough on the fact that many people overdose on drugs that they obtained with a doctor’s prescription as opposed to drugs obtained on the black market.
The Times bases this claim on an analysis of coroners’ records for 3,733 prescription drugs deaths in Southern California between 2006 and 2011. The analysis found that for nearly 50% of these cases, a drug that was prescribed to the deceased either contributed to or was the sole cause of the overdose.
Coroners’ records show that 71 doctors in Southern California had more than two patients who died from prescription drug overdose. These doctors were mostly pain specialists, psychiatrists and general practitioners. The Times found that almost all of these doctors work alone and lack the oversight that can be provided by HMOs and group practices. Of these 71 doctors, four have been found guilty of drug offenses and one has been charged with three counts of second-degree murder in connection with patient overdoses.
Reporters also discovered that four doctors each had 10 or more patients who overdosed on drugs that they had prescribed. The doctors were identified by pill bottles found at death scenes. One Orange County physician, Dr. Van H. Vu, had 16 patients who overdosed on drugs obtained with a prescription he had written. The Times described several specific cases where Dr. Vu had prescribed multiple narcotic drugs to the same patient.
Dr. Vu has never been faced criminal prosecution and has a clean record with the Medical Board of California. He said he was unaware of many of his patient’s deaths before being contacted by The Times. When asked if he could have taken steps to prevent the 16 fatal overdoses, he said he didn’t think so.
Experts contacted by The Times said the findings challenge current views on the causes for the rise in prescription drug overdoses and may prompt health and law enforcement officials to take a closer look at drug prescribers. When contacted by reporters, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske expressed the opinion that the new data could be a game changer in terms of how state and federal drug officials address prescription drug abuse.
Dr. Lynn Webster, who heads the American Academy of Pain Medicine, told The Times that many physicians do not understand how easy it is to become addicted to medications. This is especially true for patients suffering from chronic pain. Some doctors also seem to lack an understanding of the dangers of the drugs they prescribe.