Docs Face Surge in Drug Raps

By Ariel Nagi 09/16/11

Doctor prosecutions have risen as concern over prescription drugs kicks in—and celebrity cases are raising awareness.

Dr. Murray and his "neglected" patient. Photo via

With prescription pill drug abuse soaring, more doctors are facing legal consequences—and this refocusing of blame is being driven partly by celebrity cases, such as those involving Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith. Lethal painkiller overdoses hit 13,800 in the US in 2006—more than triple the 1999 number—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and fingers are being pointed at docs for unnecessarily prescribing the drugs. The DEA reported that in 2003, just 15 physician arrests resulted in convictions—but by 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available, the number had grown to 43. Recent cases have often been for over-prescribing painkillers and other controlled substances. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 7.4% of doctors on average are hit with a malpractice claim each year—22% of which lead to payouts. It comes as no surprise that around 12% of total doctor convictions occur in Florida, a state notorious for prescription pill abuse. In California, Michael Jackson's doctor, Conrad Murray—who is accused of killing the King of Pop through his careless handling of Propofol, a powerful anesthetic—is currently facing criminal charges. Prosecutors aren't saying he violated a controlled substances law—meaning a doctor knowingly and intentionally prescribed meds outside "the usual course of professional practice" or not for a "legitimate medical purpose"—as Propofol isn't a controlled substance and has rarely been abused as a narcotic. But they do allege that Murray breached the standard of care when he gave the anesthetic to Jackson, and that his negligence caused the pop star's death. He faces up to four years' jail if convicted. Anna Nicole Smith's physician, Sandeep Kapoor, was charged with violating the controlled substances law, but was acquitted last year.

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