We hear the same story far too often. The telephone rings with the hospital, or the police on the other end. They tell you that a family member has passed away and drugs were involved. You are in shock, confused. It was not street drugs, but prescription drugs. How did your loved one die of an overdose when the drug was prescribed by a physician? Like others, you have questions, and you find yourself looking for answers. Alix and David have spoken to many families facing these questions, and understand the medicine and law in these issues very well.
The Prescription Drug Epidemic: A Man-Made Tragedy
With one American dying every 19 minutes of a prescription drug overdose, the Centers for Disease Control have now referred to the number of people dying in the United States from prescription drugs as an epidemic. In fact, in 2009, more people died from prescription drug overdoses than in motor vehicle accidents, and more people die in the U.S. from prescription drug overdoses than from overdoses from heroin and cocaine combined.
How can this be? How can this have happened to your loved one? It may very well be a simple story.
Perhaps your family member started taking the painkillers because they had an on-the-job injury, or a car wreck. Maybe they hurt their back working in the yard. For whatever reason, they saw the doctor. Too often, such an innocent beginning leads to a tragic end because a doctor or physician’s assistant prescribed too many painkillers, for too long or at too high a strength. Because of the addictive nature of the drugs themselves, people who never dreamt of abusing drugs found themselves addicted, and later, either succumbed to the effects and pass away or have their lives destroyed and they and their families are left to pick up the pieces.
Why Do Doctors Overprescribe Painkillers?
THOMAS FRIEDEN, Director, Centers for Disease Control: When I was in medical school, the one thing I was told was completely wrong. The one I was told was, if you give opiates to a patient who’s in pain, they will not get addicted. Completely wrong. Completely wrong. But a generation of doctors, a generation of us grew up being trained that these drugs aren’t risky. In fact, they are risky.
That’s right. The head of the U.S. agency that has declared the number of people dying because of painkillers is an EPIDEMIC is telling us that he and all the doctors in the United States were trained that prescribing painkillers at high doses for long periods of time for routine pain was not dangerous, and now we know it is. Originally, most of these painkillers were designed to be used as end-of-life drugs to ease the pain associated with cancers. But then the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the drugs marketed the painkillers as safe for everyday pain with little or no danger of addiction or overdose. For many years, doctors have prescribed enormous amounts of painkillers as a front-line treatment for everyday pain. As Dr. Frieden and the CDC now recognize, the drugs are very addictive and are killing more Americans than automobile accidents and street drugs. But it is too late for some people, and some did not make it, and others’ lives have been ruined. All because they used drugs that were prescribed for them.
Why Did They Die?
Medications work differently in different people. Often, after a person is prescribed a painkiller and take it for a period of time, it does not control their pain as well as it did in the beginning, and they increase their dosage. This begins the downward spiral, because even though their pain does not seem to be as well controlled, the side effects are ramping up. Some painkilling drugs have side effects on the heart, and some drugs affect the central nervous system and decrease the ability to breathe. In some, cardiac arrhythmias can cause the heart to stop as a result of drug overdose. In others, the overdose results in respiratory depression, in which friends or family may see a pattern of drowsiness, slow breathing or snoring in the hours before death. Many simply quit breathing in their sleep.
Healthcare Provider Responsibilities
Despite the risks of addiction and overdose that Dr. Frieden spoke about, and repeated warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration regarding the dangers of opioid painkillers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl and methadone, health care providers continue prescribing these drugs for “too long, too strong and too many.” In doing so, they put the health and the lives of their patients at risk.
Doctors have a responsibility to take a complete history from each patient, including what medications the patient has used in the past, and what medications the patient is taking currently. Doctors have a responsibility to treat the patient in front of them, to tailor their treatment to that patient, prescribing the right medication for that patient’s condition. Doctors also have a duty to monitor the patient to make sure the patient does not get too much medication. If the person dies from a drug overdose from a drug prescribed by a doctor, the person may have died because the doctor did something wrong, which is a version of medical malpractice.
In some cases, doctors have associated themselves with pill mills. A pill mill is an operation which is set up to look like a legitimate clinic or doctor’s office, but provides prescriptions to people who have no legitimate medical need for the opioids. Pill mills, and the healthcare providers that illegitimately lend their licenses to those pill mills, also contribute to the overprescribing epidemic.
If you believe you or a family member may have been the victim of a prescription painkiller overprescribing, the healthcare provider who prescribed these medications may be responsible. Patients and certain family members who have been affected by an opioid addiction, overprescribing, or other complications caused by the over-prescription of these drugs by healthcare providers may be eligible to seek compensation for their injuries.
If you have questions about opioid overprescribing, or why your family member died from a drug overdose, and would like a free legal consultation, please contact Alix and David. We understand these issues, and we can get answers for you. In many cases, we can review the medical records, and help you understand why your family member died.