Drug Seekers Search ProPublica Database for Prescribers of Painkillers, Suboxone

By Zachary Siegel 05/17/16

The database details the prescribing habits of hundreds of thousands of doctors across the country.

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Patients check prescriber database.

The law of unintended consequences states that the actions of people and institutions always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.

Such is the case with ProPublica’s Prescriber Checkup tool, a database that details the prescribing habits of hundreds of thousands of doctors across the country, which, according to a recent report, is frequently used by people seeking drugs to find doctors who are loose with their pad.

That was not the database’s intent. One of the initial ideas behind the database was to help journalists research stories. After analysis, the data revealed dangerous trends in prescribing practices. Reporters uncovered that painkillers and other drugs were being prescribed in potentially lethal quantities, often to elderly patients. The data also showed that doctors frequently prescribed expensive name brand drugs when cheaper generics were available. Possible cases of fraud that governmental checks missed were also discovered.

Prescriber Checkup didn’t only serve a watchdog function for journalists. Doctors compared their own prescribing practices with those of their peers, and adjusted accordingly. Wary patients also went to the database to inspect their doctors’ prescribing habits, so they could better make informed decisions about their own treatment plans. Its usefulness proved manyfold.

“Recently, though, we picked up clear signs that some readers are using the data for another purpose: To search for doctors likely to prescribe them some widely abused drugs, many of them opioids,” wrote Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief, in an article entitled “An Unintended Side Effect of Transparency.”

Using Google Analytics to collect data on their site, ProPublica discovered a startling trend. Nearly 25% of visits to Prescriber Checkup involved people actively searching for painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, and amphetamines. Google searches such as "doctors who prescribe narcotics easily" or "doctors that will prescribe anything" eventually led to Prescriber Checkup.

Engelberg says that based on the data alone, it is not possible to ascertain the motives of the people making these searches. It may not always be the case that they are seeking to feed an addiction. “Some, no doubt, legitimately have chronic pain or anxiety and are simply looking for doctors who will help them,” Engelberg wrote.

People looking to recover from opioid addiction may have also used Prescriber Checkup. Two other search terms appearing in high frequency were "Suboxone" and "methadone." Doctors who use these drugs to treat opioid addiction are scarce, and Prescriber Checkup may have helped addicts find treatment.

“Still, it seems probable that some of the readers who visit Prescriber Checkup are looking for doctors who will prescribe narcotics and other powerful stimulants with few or no questions asked,” Engelberg concluded.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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