A review of the coroner’s records reveals that a small number of doctors are involved in many prescription drug deaths in Southern California.
According to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, seventy-one physicians — 0.1% of all practicing doctors in the four counties — wrote prescriptions for drugs that caused or contributed to 298 deaths. Each of these doctors prescribed drugs to three or more patients who died. Four of the doctors had ten or more patients who fatally overdosed.
The L.A. Times evaluated cause-of-death findings, toxicology reports and other information in county coroners’ files, including lists of prescription medications found at death scenes. They found that between 2006 and 2011, there were a total of 3,733 deaths from prescription drugs in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura and San Diego counties. In 1,762 of those cases, those who died had a doctor’s prescription for at least one drug that solely caused or contributed to their deaths.
“The data you have is something that’s going to shock everybody,” said Dr. Jorge F. Carreon, a former member of the Medical Board of California. He added that the newspaper’s analysis showed a few doctors’ involvement to the increase in fatal overdoses was “worse than what I thought.”
The seventy-one doctors with three or more fatal overdoses among their patients are primarily pain specialists, general practitioners and psychiatrists. Most of them work alone, without the scrutiny of peers. Four have been convicted of drug offenses in connection with their prescriptions. Another one is awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder in the overdose deaths of three patients.
The other doctors do not have criminal prosecution over their practice of medicine, and most have clean records with the Medical Board of California.
Some of the seventy-one doctors blamed overdose victims for causing their own deaths by ignoring instructions on the safe use of medications. Some of them pointed out that family members should be held responsible too for failing to intervene, and some faulted health insurers, saying that reduced payments to physicians have made it difficult to spend the time to monitor patients adequately.
The 298 patients who died of overdoses are aged between 21 and 79. Many had histories of mental illness or addiction, including previous overdoses or stints in drug treatment. Others did not start-out as high-risk patients.