The opioid epidemic has had a significant impact on people across the United States. Many blame doctors for the growing problem. Back in the 1990s, major pharmaceutical companies began producing opioids in large volumes. Then doctors began to prescribe painkillers at an alarming rate. According to the CDC, opioid prescriptions quadrupled between 1999 and 2014. Doctors are responsible for good judgment when taking care of their patients. These include discretion when prescribing opioids.
America is already in the middle of an epidemic of opioids. So it is important to investigate all possible causes of increased opioid-related deaths. But does this mean that the doctors are to blame for the overdoses of their patients?
Holding doctors accountable for overdose
In 2015, Dr. Hsiu-Yung Tseng became the first doctor accused of murder connected with three opioid overdose deaths. There have been just a handful of cases since then. But, that does not mean that there is no more to come.
The U.S. Administration of Drug Enforcement took action in 2016 against 479 healthcare professionals. This number does not include doctors who have been sued in a civil suit. This is a dramatic increase from previous years. The administration only took action in 2011 against 88 doctors.
These high-profile reports keep America’s opioid epidemic at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Yet, they are rare and only scratch the surface of the deeper problem.
The major part of our problem is well-meaning doctors and dentists, said Dr. Andrew Kolodny. He is the Executive Director of Responsible Opioid Prescribing Physicians. They are unintentionally becoming addicted to patients. And they are also storing homes with highly addictive medication.
Accidental or not, over-prescribing opioids are causing a lot of pain and suffering in America. The main cause of accidental death today is overdose.
Some also point the finger at huge pharmaceutical companies. They have forcefully marketed opioids to physicians. At the same time, they downplayed their addictive nature to sell more opioids. Purdue Pharma, OxyContin’s distributor, agreed to this agreement in 2007. Then they entered into a multi-million dollar agreement with the federal government.
Doctors have a responsibility to patients, despite the role that big pharmaceutical companies might play. An obligation that many believe is not being met and the reasons are becoming clearer. Recent studies have shown that 91% of patients who survive an overdose can still receive another opioid prescription, mostly from the same medical provider.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta said we [doctors] fail to learn and make progress. We also seem to turn a blind eye to the tragedy unfolding right in front of us.
Is overdose someone’s fault?
Doctors are well educated. This does not mean that they can predict which of their patients will be addicted to opioids.
According to the Centres for Disease Control, most people suffering from opioid addiction will get their medications from family members or friends. A doctor may take every precaution to ensure that a patient who prescribes opioids is less likely to become addicted. They cannot be held accountable for giving their patients a prescription to someone more vulnerable to the disease.
When someone dies from an overdose of opioids, it’s a tragedy. In the middle of all grief, families, and friends often want to hold others to account for their suffering. For many in this case, it would be easy to blame the doctor who recommended the drug. Unfortunately, this false blame can overwhelm the reality of the situation. An opioid medication can’t kill someone, but addiction can.
The Responsibility of Doctors When Prescribing Opioids
Doctors and other health practitioners know how dangerous opioids can be. When used in combination and in people who do not display signs of addiction, they can be beneficial. But they can cause serious problems. Doctors with authority to prescribe medicines should provide patients with appropriate treatment.
In the 1990s, the opioid epidemic began. Then several pharmaceutical companies offered bonuses to doctors who prescribed opioids. Unfortunately, there is still a risk that such behaviors will still be encouraged.
Doctors may be held responsible for negligence in the following actions:
- Over-prescribing painkillers
- Prescribing the wrong drug
- Failure to notice or respond to the opioid dependence of a patient
- Providing opioid to a patient who has previously suffered from a drug addiction
Many doctors do intend to help their patients and do not intend to hurt them. However, if the doctor fails to notice the symptoms of a patient’s addiction, refills the prescription too much, or delivers painkillers because they are excessive, the doctor may be held liable for the consequences. These effects may include opioid dependence or overdose. In certain cases, opioid dependence could lead to drug dependency on illegal opioid drugs, such as heroin.
What are the doctors doing to stop the opioid epidemic?
America is at the center of an opioid epidemic. While it can help to ease others’ pain, it does nothing to stop the increasing death rate. And what are the doctors currently doing to help combat this national emergency?
Dr. Denise K. Sur, for their part, says she sees more and more doctors referring patients who believe they are vulnerable to addiction to pain specialists. Pain specialists are well qualified to screen for addiction. But they can also offer alternative strategies for treating pain for people suffering from addiction. Taking the time to send people to a doctor makes it easier for them to receive the treatment they need without the need for a highly addictive opioid.
In August 2016, the U.S. surgeon general wrote a letter to all doctors in the United States. He asked them to help solve the opioid epidemic. Dr. Vivek Murthy included a card with advice for prescribing opioids for every letter mailed. The card advises doctors never to recommend opioids as a first-line treatment for chronic pain. And consider whether non-opioid treatments, such as exercise, could be more effective.
First, we will teach ourselves to treat pain safely and effectively, says Surgeon General Murthy, in his letter to all U.S. doctors. Second, our patients will be screened for opioid use disorder. And then provide or link them to evidence-based treatment. Third, we can shape how the rest of the world views addiction by talking about and treating it as a chronic condition, not a moral failing.
What should the ordinary citizen do to combat the opioid epidemic?
Just like Dr. Vivek Murthy advised the doctors to educate themselves, we must all do the same thing.
We need to educate ourselves about addiction’s realities better. Then we can prepare better to support them when we see a loved one hurting. So, this means understanding that addiction is never an option. It is a disorder. A disorder that needs professional assistance to give someone the best chance of recovery.
More pragmatically, the U.S. Law Enforcement Administration Office of Diversion Control provides a detailed guide for how to dispose of unused opioids safely. This would help prevent the build-up of opioids.
Overdose is a symptom of America’s much larger problem of addiction. While nobody can be the cause of someone else’s addiction, we can all be part of the solution.