Pain Medicine Specialists Have the Highest Rate of Patient Deaths from Opioid Overdose

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by Eric Pearson

More than 15,000 Americans died from prescription drug overdose in 2009. Most of these deaths occurred as a result of the use of opioid painkillers such as methadone, oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl.

A recent study entitled “Physician Specialty and Opioid Prescribing in the Utah Controlled Substance Database 2005-2009” indicates that patients of pain medicine specialists are much more likely to suffer a fatal opioid overdose than patients of other doctors such as family doctors or general practitioners. The study, presented at the 2012 American Academy of Pain Medicine annual meeting in Palm Springs, California analyzed data from a Utah database and concluded that pain specialists in Utah had the state’s highest ratio of fatalities from opioid prescriptions.

To better understand the role physician specialty plays in opioid-prescribing patterns in Utah, lead investigator Christina Porucznik, PhD, MSPH, assistant professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of Utah’s School of Medicine in Salt Lake City, and colleagues analyzed records from the Utah Controlled Substances Database (CSD), which contains all pharmacist-submitted outpatient prescriptions.

Dr. Porucznik found that nearly 25% of all opioid prescriptions written in Utah between 2002 and 2010 were issued by a family physician and at the time of their death, 35% of opioid-related decedents had an active opioid prescription that originated from a family physician. Pain medicine physicians, by contrast, wrote approximately 1% of all opioid prescriptions in the CSD and yet approximately 3% of all individuals who died from an opioid overdose had an active opioid prescription issued by a pain specialist.

This 3:1 ratio was much higher than the 1.4:1 (35/25) ratio found with family physicians. Other specialties with higher-than-average fatality-to-prescription ratios included anesthesiology (2.47), physical medicine (2.18), nurse practitioners (1.89) and physician assistants (1.34).

If a loved one died from an accidental prescription drug overdose, you may be entitled to compensation from the prescribing doctor. The lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson have handled dozens of lawsuits involving medical malpractice related to painkiller prescriptions, and are available for a free legal consultation about your case. To find out if you are eligible, call us toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or fill out our free online case evaluation form, and one of our representatives will contact you for more information.