The governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, devoted all of his annual speech to the problem of drug addiction. On the national news, Shumlin points out the link between prescription painkillers and death, and he calls for treating opiate addiction as a medical problem no different than cancer. The White House praised the governor’s position.
Meanwhile in another part of Washington, I’m involved in the federal effort to link the law enforcement Prescription Drug Monitoring Program databases to the health records physicians use, and to link the databases across state lines.
The unintended consequences of criminalizing addiction and driving medical problems underground need to be considered here as well.
Physician-patient confidentiality is important to public health, and networked electronic health records have both individual privacy and public health consequences. Privacy is essential in infectious disease testing, domestic violence, mental health, adolescent, reproductive, and addiction medicine. Subjecting clinical encounters to law enforcement surveillance beyond the physician’s discretion is life-threatening.
Well-meaning people are now working to link PDMP databases to EHRs and across state lines. The evidence to justify the coerced crossing of the criminal – medical boundary is anecdotal findings in pilot studies that more physicians are in a position to uncover addiction and offer treatment.
The other goal is to reduce illegal diversion of prescription drugs by both physicians and patients. What could possibly go wrong?
My worst night as a doctor was during my residency. I was working the pediatric ICU and admitted a young teenager who had tried to kill herself. Well, she didn’t really try to kill herself; she took a handful of Tylenol (acetaminophen) because some other girls had teased her.
On that night I watched as she went from a frightened girl who carried on a conversation, through agitation and into coma, and finally to death by morning. We did everything we could to keep her alive, but without a liver there is no chance of survival.
Over ten years later, I was called to the emergency room for a girl who was nauseated and a little confused, with elevated liver tests. I told the ER doctor to check an acetaminophen level and, sadly, it was elevated. She too had taken a handful of acetaminophen at an earlier time. She too was lucid and scared at the start of the evening. The last I saw of her was on the next day before she was sent to a specialty hospital for a liver transplant. I got the call later that next day with the bad news: she died.
The saddest thing about both of these kids is that they both thought they were safe. The handful of pills was a gesture, not meant to harm themselves. They were like most people; they didn’t know that this medication that is ubiquitous and reportedly safe can be so deadly. But when they finally learned this, it was too late. They are both dead. Suicides? Technically, but not in reality.
For these children the problem was that symptoms of toxicity may not show up until it is too late. People often get nausea and vomiting with acute overdose, but if the treatment isn’t initiated within 8-10 hours, the risk of going to liver failure is high. Once enough time passes, it is rare that the person can be cured without liver transplant.
According to a recent ProPublica investigation, acetaminophen overdose is the #1 cause of liver failure in the US. And between years of 2001 and 2010, 1567 people in the U.S. were reported to have died by accidentally overdosing.
The following column appears today on THCB, in the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times and at ProPublica.
Your doctor hands you a prescription for a blood pressure drug. But is it the right one for you?
You’re searching for a new primary care physician or a specialist. Is there a way you can know whether the doctor is more partial to expensive, brand-name drugs than his peers?
Or say you’ve got to find a nursing home for a loved one. Wouldn’t you want to know if the staff doctor regularly prescribes drugs known to be risky for seniors or overuses psychiatric drugs to sedate residents?
For most of us, evaluating a doctor’s prescribing habits is just about impossible. Even doctors themselves have little way of knowing whether their drug choices fall in line with those of their peers.
Once they graduate from medical schools, physicians often have a tough time keeping up with the latest clinical trials and sorting through the hype on new drugs. Seldom are they monitored to see if they are prescribing appropriately — and there isn’t even universal agreement on what good prescribing is.
This dearth of knowledge and insight matters for both patients and doctors. Drugs are complicated. Most come with side effects and risk-benefit calculations. What may work for one person may be absolutely inappropriate, or even harmful, for someone else.
Antipsychotics, for example, are invaluable to treat severe psychiatric conditions. But they are too often used to sedate older patients suffering from dementia — despite a “black-box” warning accompanying the drugs that they increase the risk of death in such patients.