The strong pain relievers called opioid drugs are valuable to our modern medical arsenal. The class of drugs of last resort, they ease the suffering of those with cancer and others who require palliative care and end-of-life (hospice) care.
But negatives also exist. The number of people who take opioids for chronic pain has been increasing for almost twenty years. It is this usage of opioids—prescribing them and taking them for pain that does not arise from cancer or similar diseases—that has created an addiction problem with these prescription drugs.
What Are Opioids?
The word opioid is derived from opium, an addictive, painkilling substance that is extracted from the opium poppy. What is called the poppy’s opium latex contains about 12 percent morphine. The illegal drug heroin is produced by chemically processing morphine. Codeine, which is sometimes legally sold in combination with acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin, also is produced by processing morphine. These drugs are natural opioids in that they come from the opium poppy.
But there are also synthetic opioids that are highly-regulated drugs. Some prescription opioids you might have heard of include:
- Vicodin (the generic version is hydrocodone)
- OxyContin (the generic version is oxycodone)
- Dilaudid (the generic version is hydromorphone)
- Methadone (often used in addiction treatment programs, especially with heroin addicts)
- Duragesic (the fentanyl pain patch, sold by Mylan, Watson, and Sandoz generically). Fentanyl is sometimes used legally during surgery or for other severe pain.
- Buprenex (the generic version is buprenorphine)
- Butorphanol (occasionally used during labor)
- Demerol (the generic version is meperidine); it is no longer frequently prescribed because of drug interaction dangers.
Of the drugs on the list, the ones you are most likely to have heard about with regard to addiction problems in our country are OxyContin (oxycodone) and Vicodin (hydrocodone).
Addiction and Opioids
Opioid drugs are quite effective against pain and are generally safe, but only if they are taken for a short time under the supervision of a doctor. These drugs can quickly turn a person into an addict if they are used for an extended period of time or without adequate supervision. In fact, the drug OxyContin/oxycodone was at first hailed as a useful painkiller because it was promoted as being less addictive than similar opioid drugs.
Unfortunately, that has not turned out to be the case. It has been estimated that opioid abuse and overdose cases create an economic burden on our country of roughly $78.5 billion. Opioid addiction is indeed an epidemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- From 1999 to 2015, over 180,000 people died in cases related to prescription opioid overdoses.
- In 2014, it was estimated that the number of people abusing or addicted to prescription opioids in the U.S. was greater than 2 million.
- About 20 percent, or one out of five persons, are prescribed opioids when they do not have cancer pain or diagnoses related to pain.
- Since 1999, prescriptions for opioids have quadrupled.
Opioid addiction takes lives and tears families apart. The epidemic of opioid abuse has grown so out-of-control in some areas that local EMTs and ambulance services routinely carry Naloxone, a medication that quickly reverses an opioid overdose, saving many from death.
A Doctor’s Responsibilities
The CDC has published guidelines regarding prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Additionally, doctors are expected to take reasonable care when it comes to these drugs, taking into account:
- A patient’s medical history
- The doctor’s medical findings
- The doctor’s diagnosis
- What the established standard of care is for treating the patient’s medical condition.
If the doctor does not consider such circumstances as a patient’s previous addiction history, or provides a chronic pain patient with long-term opioid pain relief without pursuing other forms of pain management, any addiction which results might be considered as due to medical negligence. Negligence is generally grounds for medical malpractice.
Recent Cases Involving Opioids
Medical malpractice and related cases can be and have been brought against doctors and pharmacies for negligence with regard to opioids:
- June, 2016: A patient with back pain was prescribed over 37,000 pills—OxyContin, oxycodone, and Vicodin—between 2008 and 2012 by a doctor. The doses were called “colossal and reckless.” In a case decided by a jury, the patient was awarded $1.4 million, with another $1.2 million awarded to his wife. The jury also awarded $15 million in punitive damages.
- February, 2015: A man in Florida died from an overdose of alprazolam and hydrocodone. The pharmacy was sued by his estate because the prescriptions were filled too close together in time, before the man should have used up his previous prescription. A lower court dismissed the case, but the appellate court found that the pharmacy owed a duty to the man beyond merely following the doctor’s directions. There is no information regarding the award.
There is an interesting ongoing case in Jackson, MS, that is not a medical malpractice case. It is supposed to be decided by a judge whether Mississippi’s attorney general, along with a number of private attorneys and their plaintiffs, can proceed in the state’s suit against certain manufacturers of opioids. The grounds are that the companies promoted these drugs, allegedly understating consistently the health hazards while overstating any benefits, in violation of state law. If this case goes forward, it could end up with outcomes similar to the cases that involved Big Tobacco.
A Skilled and Caring Medical Malpractice Attorney Can Help You
Patients expect their healthcare providers, including their pharmacists, to use common sense and prescribe or dispense the appropriate medication and accurate dosage to treat medical conditions. Due to the negligence of doctors, pharmacists, nurses, and other medical specialists, there have been many cases of patients who suffer from serious physical harm as a result of medication errors, including overprescribing of opioids. Consider this: By reporting your medication error, you may be saving other innocent patients from serious injuries, addiction, and possible fatalities.
An experienced medical malpractice attorney such as Maryland attorney Steven H. Heisler will be able to listen to the facts of your case, conduct a thorough investigation, and help you devise a legal strategy for obtaining compensation for your injuries. Due to the involvement of insurance companies and defendants who can afford a strong legal team, it’s a good idea to equip yourself with an attorney who has extensive experience when it comes to medical malpractice. Not every medical malpractice claim will hold up in court. However, the only way to determine this is through a thorough case review.
If you or a loved one has suffered as the result of what you believe to be medical malpractice, contact the Law Offices of The Injury Lawyer, Steven H. Heisler, today for a free initial consultation about whether you have a case. Call (410) 625-4878, or use our online contact form.