Nine in 10 opioid overdose victims receive additional painkiller prescriptions, often from the same physician, study finds

by Jim Orr

A shocking new study has found that more than nine out of 10 patients who suffered a non-fatal opioid overdose were prescribed opioid painkillers again, often by the same doctor who had treated them before their overdose. The study highlights growing concerns about the role that physicians who improperly write painkiller prescriptions play in the epidemic of opioid overdoses that has arisen in the U.S. over the last two decades.

The study, conducted by researchers at Boston Medical Center and Harvard University, tracked 3,000 patients who had suffered an overdose caused by opioid painkillers. Researchers tracked the patients for two years after they suffered an opioid overdose, or until they suffered another overdose, left their insurance carrier, or became older than 65 years old, whichever came first.

During this period, 91% of patients who had suffered an opioid overdose received one or more prescriptions for painkillers after their overdose. In 70% of these cases, the prescriptions were written by the same doctor who had prescribed the opioid medications that caused the initial overdose to occur.

Researchers found that 7% of patients who suffered an overdose due to prescription painkillers suffered a second overdose as a result of these subsequent prescriptions. The study revealed that the likelihood of a second opioid overdose was more likely the higher follow-up dose these patients were prescribed.

The Boston Medical Center and Harvard researchers who conducted the study wrote that they were uncertain as to why so many doctors continued to treat patients with opioid painkillers after they had suffered an overdose. Researchers speculated that the prescribing physicians may not have been aware that their patients had suffered an overdose. Flaws in the way drug overdose are reported in the U.S. health care system may also have played a role, the researchers noted: “there are currently no widespread systems in place, either within health plans or through governmental organizations, for notifying providers when overdoses occur. Until such systems exist, providers will be left to act with dangerously limited knowledge.”

Prescription Painkillers and the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses in the U.S.

The epidemic of opioid painkiller overdoses has been a leading contributor to the rise in prescription drug deaths in the U.S. over the last two decades. Since 1999, sales of opioid painkillers in the U.S. have risen by an alarming 300%, due both to the aggressive marketing of these drugs by the pharmaceutical industry and the growing willingness of doctors to prescribe opioids, even when they may not be needed.

As sales of opioid medications has climbed, so too have the number of overdose deaths caused by these medications. The CDC has reported that since 2000, the number of fatal overdoses due to prescription painkillers has doubled in the U.S. While previous theories have laid the blame for this alarming increase in opioid prescriptions and overdoses on “pill mills” that dispense high volumes of painkillers to patients, recent studies have found that general practitioners have played a significant role in the increased sales of opioid drugs.

The aggressive marketing of prescription painkillers by the pharmaceutical industry has also played a key role in the rise of opioid overdoses in the U.S. Drugmakers such as Perdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, have faced numerous lawsuits over their marketing of opioid painkillers to physicians and from families whose loved ones were the victims of opioid overdoses caused by these medications.

Victims of Prescription Painkiller Overdose Have Legal Rights

When a loved one has been the victim of overdose caused by opioid painkillers, the manufacturer of the drug—or the doctor or hospital who prescribed them—may be to blame. Sometimes doctors prescribe too many of these powerful painkillers, sometimes doctors prescribe these potent drugs in dosages that are too high, and sometimes doctors prescribe them with other drugs that can cause dangerous and even fatal drug interactions.

Doctors have to be extremely careful, and follow established protocols, when prescribing multiple central nervous system depressants (sometimes abbreviated as “CNS depressants”) to the same patient. Tragically, doctors sometimes prescribe powerful drugs that are CNS depressants without adequately taking into account the patient’s prescriptions for other drugs that are also CNS depressants.

The lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson have represented numerous clients who have been the victims of overdose or other complications caused by excessive painkiller prescriptions by doctors or hospitals. In fact, the attorneys at our law firm have handled more cases involving the fentanyl pain patch—a powerful opioid painkiller about 100 times more potent than morphine—than all other law firms in the country combined.

When doctors fail to follow established protocols for prescribing medications such as OxyContin, Vicodin or hydrocodone, fentanyl, methadone, or other opioids, drug abuse, addiction, tolerance, or overdose may be the result. When patients are prescribed excessive amounts of painkillers by their doctor, or when they are kept on these drugs after pain has subsided, individuals who take powerful opioids to manage pain may be at risk of an overdose. Unless they are properly treated and monitored, these patients may lapse into respiratory arrest or respiratory depression, which may be fatal.

If you or a loved one has been the victim of complications from an opioid overdose, the doctor or hospital who prescribed these drugs may be to blame. For more information about opioid painkiller lawsuits and to find out if you are eligible to file a case, contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by following the link to our free case evaluation form located on this website.

by Jim Orr

Jim Orr is a licensed attorney and a partner at HO&P focusing on business and personal injury litigation. Jim was selected multiple times to the Super Lawyers List and has tried 70+ cases to verdict.