You can scarcely turn on the evening news or open your web browser without reading something about the growing opioid drug crisis in this country. This addiction crisis is striking home for many people not just because of the sheer numbers of people becoming addicted to heroin and other opioids, but because it seems no one is immune. This drug problem isn't unfolding in shadowy back alleys; it's not just reckless young people who fell in with the "wrong element." It's people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses, high school dropouts and people with advanced degrees, people with seemingly nothing to lose and people with everything to lose.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the majority of deaths from drug overdose—more than six out of every ten—involve opioid use. As of 2015, that amounted to 91 deaths from opioids in this country every day. That's more than half a million such deaths between 2000 and 2015, and the number is only growing.
What is causing this explosion of opioid drug use, which is rightly being referred to as an epidemic? Not lack of willpower or ignorance about the dangers of drugs. Many people become addicted because they were first given these medications by someone they trusted with their health: their own doctors. But does the law hold a doctor liable for drug abuse by a patient under these circumstances?
"First, do no harm." This maxim is central to doctors' training. Physicians may not be able to make a patient's condition better, but they must strive to avoid making it worse. Unfortunately, some doctors' efforts to relieve pain have been not only ineffective, but have led to addiction for their patients.
At one time, opioid analgesics were used for limited purposes, such as to treat pain immediately after surgery or to relieve pain for terminal cancer patients. That began to change in the 1990s, when the use of such drugs expanded for chronic, non-terminal medical conditions like lower back pain and other musculoskeletal issues. What caused this change in practice? At least in part, it was driven by aggressive marketing campaigns by pharmaceutical companies that were developing powerful new medicines like OxyContin, approved for use in 1995. Other opioids include Vicodin, oxycodone, Demerol, fentanyl, and methadone.
Doctors were urged to help their patients get "out ahead of" pain by being proactive with treatments like OxyContin. Long accused of being insensitive to their patients' complaints of pain, the new class of opioid drugs offered an opportunity to respond aggressively to pain issues. From the 1990s to the 2010s, the medical use of opioids increased one thousand percent. While these became the prescriptions of choice for pain management specialists, primary care doctors (who make up a larger group than pain specialists) prescribed many more opioids overall. Often, these doctors have minimal training or expertise in pain management, and may overprescribe these medications.
At least one overprescription of opioids has led to an enormous judgment against the prescribing physician and his employer. In a 2016 Missouri case, a jury awarded a $17.6 million verdict (including $15 million in punitive damages) in a case involving a man with chronic low back pain. The man's physician prescribed him up to forty pills a day, for a total dose over 15 times the maximum the Centers for Disease control recommends.
Unfortunately, because the prescription of opioids for chronic nonmalignant pain has been so widespread, it can be difficult to argue that a doctor's prescribing those medications amounted to medical malpractice and violated the standard of care.
That said, the Missouri case referenced above shows that it is possible to hold a physician responsible for prescribing opioids when doing so is not warranted, or in amounts likely to lead to addiction and much greater than likely to be beneficial. It is also possible that a doctor could be held liable for failure to warn a patient of the risks of an opioid medication, or for prescribing such medications when the patient's medical history reflects a risk of addiction.
If you believe that you or a loved one became addicted to opioids due to a doctor's negligence, it would be worthwhile to discuss your situation with an experienced Oregon medical malpractice attorney. Addiction can destroy health, families, relationships, and reputations. An experienced, ethical attorney can help you discern whether you have a viable case against a healthcare provider whose actions led to your current issues.
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The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
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