In a article to be published in the Archieves of Internal Medicine next week an alarming spike in the number of accidental deaths from prescription drug use related to “medication errors" is reported. The Article by David P. Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego is the most recent in a series of research he has done on the subject of drug abuse, suicide, and societal trends.
“Deaths from medication mistakes at home increased from 1,132 deaths in 1983 to 12,426 in 2004. Adjusted for population growth, that amounts to an increase of more than 700 percent during that time. In contrast, there was only a 5 percent increase in fatal medication errors away from home, including hospitals, and not involving alcohol or street drugs”
"By 2004, fatal medication errors were responsible for far more years of potential life lost than were all accidents from firearms, falls, fire and flames, drowning and non-medication poisonings combined," Phillips said
So what type of medications are we primarily talking about here. You guessed it, Opioid pain medications like Methadone, Oxycodone, Vicodin, and Fentanyl. Throw in a benzo, an antidepressant, perhaps a glass of wine and out go the lights.
Similar data is being reported by the Centers for Disease Control. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unintentional poisoning deaths – 95% of which are drug overdoses – increased from 12,186 in 1999 to 20,950 in 2004.
During testimony at a Senate Judiciary committee in March of 2008 Leonard J. Paulozzi, M.D., M.P.H stated
When these more specific drugs were tabulated, we found that street drugs were not behind the increase. The increase from 1999 to 2004 was driven largely by opioid analgesics, with a smaller contribution from cocaine, and essentially no contribution from heroin. The number of deaths in the narcotics category that involved prescription opioid analgesics increased from 2,900 in 1999 to at least 7,500 in 2004, an increase of 160% in just 5 years. By 2004, opioid painkiller deaths numbered more than the total of deaths involving heroin and cocaine in this category.
He went on to say
All available evidence suggests that these deaths are related to the increasing use of prescription drugs, especially opioid painkillers, among people during the working years of life. A CDC study showed a correlation on the state level between usage of opioid painkillers and drug overdose death rates. Perhaps because of differences in marketing or physician prescribing practices
What can be done
It is important that state prescription drug monitoring programs share data with law enforcement officials for the purpose of investigating the unlawful diversion or misuse of certain controlled substances. For example, some state prescription drug monitoring programs are administered by a law enforcement agency in conjunction with a state board of pharmacy
This recommendations falls in line with what California is implementing through the CURES program which will give providers instant online access to all scheduled drugs obtained via prescription by a patient. Law enforcement also has access to this data as needed. I recently posted about that program here
What is going on here is a direct result of politicizing medicine by the pain rights movement and the organizations (Joint Commission and others) that have mandated liberal pain management into guidelines and enforcement standards. More recently the push to promote patient satisfaction in Healthcare organizations has resulted in liberalizing of prescribing opioid medications to make patients happy. Whatever happened to do no harm? Medicine has lost its way. These numbers should serve as a wake up call and re-examination of pain management practices and the whole concept of pain as the fifth vital sign.