Doctor-Prescribed Opioids Led to 92,000 Overdoses
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Doctor-Prescribed Opioids Led to 92,000 Overdoses


You’re Killing Me, Doc

The Los Angeles Times just published an article about a 2010 analysis of nationwide hospital data and the results aren’t pretty; turns out 92,000 overdoses in emergency rooms in the US were from doctor-prescribed painkillers. Of course it’s not news that doctors overprescribe medicine to shut their patients up but this is more than a hack sitcom joke about every kid getting Ritalin; it’s about everyone around us who is in pain or simply claiming to be being provided with highly addictive medication that can kill. If that also doesn’t bother anyone, just know that the ER visits from this study cost the people involved $1.4 billion dollars. You could ask why, since I didn’t go to the ER for an opioid overdose this year, I should I care about 92,000 people’s billion dollars; the answer is that we’re talking about a billion one-dollar bills that could have gone into the US economy—and that’s something we should all care about.

Why Not Try to Prevent This Instead of Having a Back-Up Plan?

US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. gave a speech to the nation’s police chiefs recently where he unveiled a Justice Department “tool kit” for how law enforcement should respond to overdose calls; he encouraged all of America’s police departments to provide their officers with naloxone, a fast antidote that can reverse an overdose and prevent death. This, of course, is the back up plan. While the philosophy behind it is great, why can’t somebody give a similar speech to a staff of doctors?

People with breathing, heart and mental problems are at the highest risk for drug overdoses. One of the researchers from Stanford University, Michael Yokell, cautions that “when a clinician writes a prescription for painkillers for someone with one of these conditions, they need to do so with care”—or alternatives. But what are the alternatives for people whose tolerance is through the roof because they’ve been given painkillers from doctors for 10 years? They’re not going to be up for taking Advil instead. And so they’re at high risk for death.

We’re Part of the Problem

Painkiller deaths have quadrupled from 1999 to 2011, showing a “sharp rise in the number of prescriptions for such drugs.” In 2009, overdoses involving painkillers pushed drug deaths past traffic accidents. In 2011, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared an epidemic.

While this epidemic has been blamed on pharmacy robberies, pill poppers and the black market, a 2012 LA Times study showed that doctors played the most important role in the drug overdoses: of 3,733 deaths from prescription medication, doctors prescribed to half of them, 41% of the patients who went to the ER for an opioid overdose were released soon after while 55% went into the hospital and four percent were transferred to an acute care hospital. This is all added up to the $1.4 billion dollars mentioned earlier. But don’t worry, it was strictly charged to those who needed that money the most in the US: 40% of the patients were from the South and a whopping 79% lived in a zip code where the median income was below $67,000 dollars a year.

And yet Prop 46, which would have provided a system for doctors to check California’s prescription drug monitoring program before prescribing medicine, failed in our most recent election. It astonishes me that 38 million people in my state didn’t vote yes on Prop 46. It also surprises me that in spite of all this information being out there, we still blindly trust doctors. I’m a huge advocate of Western medicine but if there was a new drug or disease sending 92,000 people to the ER and the death toll from it quadrupled in 10 years, it would be regulated as a high schedule narcotic and banned from airports; the dealers would be serving life sentences and Breaking Bad would have been about doctors. And yet our medical system stays the same. I’m not saying I think that doctors are prescribing pills to pay off Maseratis and buy Tom Ford cologne (or at least not entirely); I just think that something’s pretty broken about a system where the people we entrust to save our lives are actually killing us.

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About Author

Carlos Herrera is a comedian, photographer and writer whose work can also be found on The Fix . He has been featured in LA Weekly and has performed at The Hollywood Improv among other places.