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Health & Medicine

Can Healthcare Providers Be Held Liable for Prescription Drug Abuse?

— November 7, 2019

Healthcare providers can be held liable for prescription abuse if their practices are proved to be unprofessional and if quantifiable harm results from the abuse.

With the large number of fentanyl-related deaths in the United States, there have been growing instances of prescribers held liable. After using highly addictive prescription drugs, patients have sought out illegal substances like heroin. In other cases, the medication itself becomes the most abused substance. For instance, a large amount of students have reportedly abused Adderall. 

Notably, there has been evidence of doctors being bribed by pharmaceutical companies to prescribe these drugs. This isn’t a new problem, though. Over a decade ago, the FDA had to require manufacturers to start including “black box warnings” on atypical antipsychotics, acknowledging the dangerous effects that prescription drugs had on patients. 

Whether or not doctors can be held liable for drug abuse and resulting harm is dependent on a few key factors. For one, where does patient accountability come into play? Second, what information did the doctor have before prescribing the medicine? And third, what were the final results of a patient’s prescription abuse? Furthermore, the nature of the drug abuse may change the legal outcome.

Physical Drug Dependence

Professionally, the words “addiction” and “dependence” are defined differently. “Dependence” is most commonly used to describe a physical dependence, and is characterized by tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. Addiction describes biochemical changes in the brain that result from drug abuse. When it comes to physical dependence, can healthcare providers be held liable?

In cases we’ve seen, it’s the results of physical dependence that are likely to make prescribers liable. For instance, in a 2018 wrongful death case that did find a doctor liable, a Connecticut doctor prescribed an opioid medication with disregard to a patient’s medical history. The patient already had a strong tolerance to medication but suffered from Madelung’s disease. Within hours of getting her prescription, she overdosed and died. Professionals have argued that he should have sent her to a pain specialist.

Notably, the doctor was found negligent in this case because he failed to obtain the late woman’s records. Cases like this have led some physicians to turn their backs on pharmaceutical companies in a court of law. Due to the increased prescription-related deaths in the United States, we may see more of these companies on the receiving end of legal action.

Clear and red syringes inside open tin can near cigarette butt; image by Matthew T. Rader, via
Clear and red syringes inside open tin can near cigarette butt; image by Matthew T. Rader, via

Drug Withdrawals

While detoxing from a chemical dependency, a patient may go through physical withdrawals. The symptoms of withdrawal look different for every drug, but the severity of them is often what brings people to rehabilitation centers. Cold sweats, flu-like symptoms, seizures, extreme anxiety, and tremors are all general symptoms of drug withdrawal.

The withdrawals from the prescription-aided opioid crisis have manifested themselves in a variety of ways. Opioid withdrawal symptoms range from muscle aches and anxiety to vomiting and diarrhea. To avoid liability, medical professionals may find it beneficial to study up on their pharmacokinetics to evaluate how medication affects their patients. Unfortunately, the opioid crisis is slated to worsen the upcoming stimulant epidemic, which is also causing serious withdrawal symptoms among patients.

While prescriber liability is generally circumstantial, several attorneys seem to be of the opinion that withdrawal symptoms alone are not enough to take someone to court. Pharmaceutical corporations have notably been convicted of taking advantage of withdrawal symptoms, however. Purdue Pharma, who invested in the anti-addiction market while increasing oxycontin sales, is a prime example of this. However, unless there is a quantifiable injury from the withdrawal symptoms, the legitimacy of a case against the pharmaceutical industry is uncertain, and in some cases unlikely. 

Mental Addiction

Addiction refers to a change in brain chemistry rather than a physical dependency. Breaking free from addiction is especially hard because of this biochemical change. The way addiction affects the brain may remove a patient’s willpower to combat their physical dependence, even if withdrawal symptoms are excruciating.

Many addictive substances are introduced to young people with learning disorders and can follow individuals through their adult lives. A surprisingly large amount of students are medicated for ADHD with drugs like Adderall and Ritalin. One study found that a whopping 65% of fifth graders at a San Diego public school were medicated for the disorder.

Medication addiction may be a liable offense if the prescribing doctor is negligent and does not check for a patient’s history regarding substance abuse. If a physician is aware of a patient’s drug-abusing past and still chooses to give them addictive substances, they may also be held liable. Liability is determined by what medical professionals are capable of preventing.

Thus, healthcare providers can be held liable for prescription abuse if their practices are proved to be unprofessional and if quantifiable harm results from the abuse. The definition of an injury may change from situation to situation, though, and different judges and juries can have varied opinions on it. In the future, shedding light on the pharmaceutical industry’s negligence regarding drug dependence and addiction may lead to harsher legal consequences, saving lives in the process. As the conversation changes, the laws could as well.

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