An alarming article in the October 12, 2010 Virginian-Pilot begins, “A federal investigation has largely cleared the Hampton VA Medical Center of allegations that doctors there are coerced to overprescribe powerful narcotics to veterans.” The news is ultimately reassuring because U.S. Department of Vetrans Affairs concluded that prescription drug companies and their sales representatives were not pressuring doctors and pharmacists to provide narcotic drugs such as fentanyl, oxycodone and other opiates and opioids to patients who did not need them.
The problem, though, is that regulators, patients and hospital administrators at the Hampton VAMC had reason to suspect that anyone was unnecessarily getting narcotic painkillers. The drugs — godsends to many in unrelieved pain — carry all-too-often realized risks for dependency, abuse, disability and death.
Suspected and documented overprescribing of powerful painkillers have drawn significant attention locally and across the United States in the past month. In September, a family physician practicing in the Virginia (VA) Eastern Shore town of Belle Haven had his license to practice suspended after a panel of the Virginia Board of Medicine determined the doctor had acted unprofessionally in writing prescription for narcotic pain medications and antibiotics to treat chronic Lyme disease. The root of the problem was that few doctors and medical associations recognize chronic Lyme disease as a valid diagnosis.
Earlier this week, former Wichita, Kansas (KS), clinic operators Dr. Stephen Schneider and Linda Schneider, a nurse, each received decades-long prison sentences for indiscriminately prescribing opiates and opioids. As many as 53 prescription drug overdose deaths have been traced to medications received through the Schneiders’ clinic.
Doctors, nurses and pharmacists take an oath to treat patients to the best of their abilities and make every effort to protect patients from risks to their already fragile health. Patients must be able to trust all health care providers to take their oaths and responsibilities seriously. Any time doctors, nurses or pharmacists break their oaths and act irresponsibly, negligently or illegally, patients are left without their greatest protections from injury and loss of life.