PD Editorial: A Tech-Savvy Approach To Saving Lives

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Almost four dozen Americans die every day from prescription pain-killer overdoses.

These deaths coincide with a sharp increase in the number of prescriptions written for narcotic pain-killers such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Norco.

“Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for a month,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has described the problem as an epidemic. “Although most of these pills were prescribed for a medical purpose, many ended up in the hands of people who misused or abused them.”

To feed the habit, or to facilitate the black market, addicts and drug dealers go shopping, seeking out doctors, dentists, even veterinarians willing to prescribe painkillers without asking too many questions.

California responded by creating a statewide database, managed by the state Justice Department, to track prescriptions for these drugs.

Pharmacists are required to report all prescriptions that they fill for opioid-based painkillers and for many other addictive drugs as well. That only addresses the back half of the transaction. For the database to be effective, physicians must use it, too.

That, however, is optional.

Under a state law enacted two years ago, physicians must register so they can access the database. With it, they can determine whether patients seeking opiates or other addictive drugs already have prescriptions from other doctors. A physician isn’t barred from writing another one, but he or she can make a more informed decision.

It should be routine practice. However, the medical lobby fought off past efforts to require doctors to check the database before prescribing narcotics.

A requirement to use the database was tacked on to Proposition 46, an initiative targeting the state’s medical malpractice law. Critics, including this page, pointed out that the database, though a good idea, wasn’t fully functional. The state Justice Department says it should be upgraded by July 1.

And the issue is again in front of the Legislature.

Senate Bill 482 would require physicians and other medical professionals with prescribing authority to check the database before writing a new prescription for any drug listed on Schedule II or III of the federal government’s list of controlled substances. For patients with an existing prescription, doctors would be required to check the database once a year. Violators would be subject to discipline by their state licensing board.

“While California was the first state to create a drug monitoring system, it has lagged behind others in realizing the full potential of its system,” said state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, the author of SB 482. He noted that New York and Tennessee already require prescribers to check state monitoring systems and said those states have “seen dramatic decreases in drug overdoses and deaths.”

The California Medical Association is again opposing any requirement to use the database, arguing that it imposes on the practice of medicine. That’s hyperbole. Lara’s bill doesn’t interfere with doctors. It only requires that they take precautions that could save lives.

Hmm. Sounds like the Hippocratic oath, doesn’t it?

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