The Dangers of Negligent Opioid Prescriptions

A new article from the Journal of the American Medical Association delves into an issue which is at the intersection of many complex ideas about patient safety, negligent doctor conduct, and potential malpractice: opioid overprescription. As reported in a recent story on the topic at Science Daily, the practice of doctors when it comes to prescribing various painkillers to treat chronic problems may actually be causing significant harm. The main concern is that overuse of the drugs may be creating dependency which results in abuse, overdose, and a burgeoning illegal market for the drugs.

The Prescription Drug Problem
The article places the scope of the problem into perspective, explaining that “More people in the U.S. die from a drug overdose than they do from motor vehicle accidents and more of those deaths are caused by prescription opioids than those attributable to cocaine and heroin combined.”

Of course, recognizing the scope of the problem is not akin to admitting that medical professionals are contributing to the harm. However, a closer look at the spread of prescription drug addictions and overdose danger suggests that there is much more that medical professionals can do to limit the harm. Most notably, the opinion piece suggests that too many medical professionals use these drug prescriptions as a crutch for a wide swath of ailments. The overuse of these prescriptions lead to underuse of safer, alternatives. It may be easiest to automatically write a prescription for chronic pain, but other options need to be explored.

This is not a new problem. For example, several years ago an opinion piece from the Journal of the American Medical Association also suggests that practitioners need to be incredibly vigilant about use of these opioid medications. The article discussed research from years prior which found a clear link between the prescriptions from medical providers and increased overdoses. There are regional distinctions, with doctors in some parts of the country giving patients these drugs in much higher proportions than in other locations. The high-prescription spots come with significant increases in overdoses. Can more be done by doctors to fix the problem?

Legal Liability
Actually holding a medical provider accountable for prescription drug overdoses is very fact-dependent. As a general rule, an intentional overdose or abuse of these medication is not an example of malpractice–after all, it is an intentional act by an individual. However, in certain cases medical providers may have acted negligently which caused harm. Unclear instructions on the use of the drug, reckless prescriptions to those with obvious addictions, and the running of “pill mills” where doses are given out at will, all may raise unique issues which could result in some sort of legal action.

No matter what the case, however, it is reasonable for medical providers to be prudent about their use of these medications. The problem is well-known and many ways to limit harm exist. Hopefully, more doctors heed the warning signs and act prudently to stop the spread of the problem.

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