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Investigation Spotlights Pill-Prescribing Docs

A new report, showing just how many Rx ODs are linked to a small number of doctors, could prompt some rule changes.

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By McCarton Ackerman

11/12/12

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A major new investigation from the LA Times shows just how many prescription drug-related deaths in Southern California are linked with a relatively small number of doctors. Reporters identified 3,733 Rx drug-related deaths in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura and San Diego counties from 2006-2011; an examination of coroners' records found that in 47% of these cases, drugs for which the deceased had a prescription were the sole or contributing cause of death. And just 71 doctors—a mere 0.1% of those practicing within the four counties—contributed their prescriptions to 298 of the total deaths, with each being linked to at least three overdoses.

Huntington Beach pain specialist Dr. Van H. Vu led the count with 16 deaths—but he still has a spotless record with the Medical Board of California, which licenses and oversees physicians. Vu says that he follows recommended practices to deter drug abuse, such as requiring patients to sign "pain management contracts"—in which they agree to take medications as directed and not to obtain more from other doctors—and conducting routine urine tests to make sure meds aren't being abused. "Every single day, I try to do the best I can for every single patient," he tells the LA Times. "I can't control what they do once they leave my office."

The use of painkillers quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, with doctors writing about 300 million prescriptions for these drugs each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that's enough for every adult American to be medicated round the clock for a month. The CDC also reports that narcotic pain relievers now cause or contribute to nearly 75% of prescription drug ODs and about 15,500 deaths annually. And for every death, there are roughly 32 emergency room visits for non-fatal ODs. Despite these already-alarming findings, medical experts believe the new LA Times investigation could lead to changes in how doctors are allowed to prescribe painkillers. "Do I think this has the potential to change the game in the way it's being looked at and being addressed, both at the state and federal level? Yes, I do," says President Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske.

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