California physicians are concerned about treating patients with pain medications after officials filed murder charges against a doctor for prescribing to patients who fatally overdosed, the Los Angeles Times reports.
According to a Times analysis of CDC data, drug-related deaths have doubled over the last 10 years, driven by an increase in overdoses of prescription narcotics.
Earlier this year, Rowland Heights physician Hsiu-Ying Tseng was charged with murder for prescribing medication to three patients who fatally overdosed. Prosecutors said Tseng prescribed the drugs with little to no medical examination and knew her actions were dangerous.
After the charges were filed, the district attorney's office issued a statement saying that Tseng and other doctors violated the law "by prescribing drugs for no legitimate medical purpose to otherwise healthy individuals for the sole purpose of the patient getting high. Those victims die while the doctor gets rich."
Kimberly Lovett -- a physician who teaches at UC-San Diego School of Medicine -- said that she and other physicians do not condone the practices of doctors who deliberately prescribe narcotics to patients with substance misuse disorders. However, she said that some physicians have expressed fear that prosecutions might make them wary of prescribing pain medications even when they are necessary.
Lovett said, "The legal community is now sending a strong message to physicians: If you prescribe opiates to some ill-defined degree that we consider criminal, we're going to put you away for it, and we're going to call you a murderer." She added, "When physicians adapt to that message, patients will suffer ... You're now putting patients in a position of proving their innocence."
She also said that it can be difficult for physicians to discern when patients are lying about pain to get medication.
According to the Times, physicians also worry that authorities are holding doctors criminally liable for patient behaviors.
Distinction Between Malpractice and Murder
Marshall Morgan, chief of emergency medicine at UCLA Medical Center, said, "The question is whether this is a criminal act or medical malpractice," adding, "The concern I have as a physician is that it's a slippery slope."
Tracy Green, a Los Angeles attorney, said that the distinction between committing a crime and medical malpractice is unclear and depends largely on how reckless and egregious prosecutors consider the doctor's actions (Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times, 9/12).