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Prescription Drugs Are The Chief Cause Of Non-Natural Death In San Diego

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Aired 11/2/10

Prescription drug abuse has become a major problem in the U.S. County health officials say San Diego is no exception. An increasing number of local deaths have been caused by unintentional overdoses of prescription drugs.

Prescription drug abuse has become a major problem in the U.S. County health officials say San Diego is no exception. An increasing number of local deaths have been caused by unintentional overdoses of prescription drugs.

County Deputy Medical Examiner Jonathan Lucas says prescription drug abuse is the leading cause of non-natural death in San Diego.
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Above: County Deputy Medical Examiner Jonathan Lucas says prescription drug abuse is the leading cause of non-natural death in San Diego.

Emergency medicine Dr. Richard Clark says there are more prescription painkillers on the market these days. He believes easy access to these medications leads to the rise in abuse.
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Above: Emergency medicine Dr. Richard Clark says there are more prescription painkillers on the market these days. He believes easy access to these medications leads to the rise in abuse.

When drugs or alcohol are linked to a person's death, the San Diego County Medical Examiner gets involved. And over the last decade, that office has gotten mighty busy.

Dr. Jonathan Lucas is the County's deputy medical examiner. He said drug-related deaths have increased by 85 percent over the past ten years.

"Alcohol and medication-related deaths have actually surpassed motor vehicle fatalities, and have become the number one cause of non-natural deaths in the county," Lucas said.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death overall. But prescription drug abuse runs a close second. Lucas said more than 400 San Diegans died from an unintentional prescription drug overdose last year.

"The numbers, given a population of 3.2 million people, may not seem like a real big number, but you're still talking about 400 people dying," Lucas pointed out. "That's four times the number of homicides we see every year in this county."

The drugs linked to these deaths read like a laundry list of narcotics: Oxycontin, Vicodin, fentanyl, morphine.

Lucas said the number of fatalities doesn't tell the whole story.

"We're only seeing the population that dies, and for every single death, how many others are out in the community, that are doing the same thing, but just haven't passed away?"

The answer to that question may lie in a hospital emergency room. The Centers for Disease Control says between 2004 and 2008, ER visits for prescription drug use more than doubled.

Inside the ER at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest, Dr. Richard Clark sees a lot of people who've gone overboard.

"We've had problems with adults for a long time," said Clark. "And now, we're seeing a lot of drugs get abused by adolescents and college students."

Clark thinks the big jump in prescription drug abuse began in the early 90s. That's when the Joint Commission, the agency that regulates hospitals, directed providers to better diagnose and treat chronic pain.

Drug makers responded by churning out more pain killers. And Clark said doctors are writing too many prescriptions for them.

"And in our well-meaning intentions, of relieving pain in patients, which we're very capable of doing, we have caused more addiction potential, and more quantities of the drug to be in society now, that can get into the wrong hands and be abused," Clark said.

A recent government study finds between 1998 and 2008, the number of people treated for prescription drug addiction rose by 400 percent.

Psychiatrist Michael Plopper is the chief medical officer for Sharp Behavioral Health Services.

Dr. Plopper described one of his typical patients.

"So often," he said, "we'll have someone who we've seen who starts with a Vicodin prescription after a tooth extraction. And then, there may be a refill on that. And that may be put in the medicine chest."

Plopper says long after the pain is gone, the person continues to take Vicodin or other pain killer.

" These medicines make people feel good. And after time, people develop tolerance," he warned. "It requires larger and larger doses to achieve the same benefit. And that's not only for treatment of pain, but also for that euphoria that's associated with opioid dependency."

Law enforcement agencies are urging people to dump their unused prescriptions. The county sheriff's department has set up permanent drug collection boxes. Officials say a recent prescription drug take back day collected more than two tons of medications in San Diego, and some 121 tons nationwide.

But a lot more action is needed. Federal officials say in 2008, at least six million Americans abused prescription drugs.

Comments

Avatar for user 'saciki10'

saciki10 | November 2, 2010 at 1:10 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

Is it possible that these drugs are way over prescribed? Maybe it's time to look at the drug companies producing and pushing this drug onto physicians who then too easily prescribe it (or way too much of it) to their patients.

Is it really necessary for a whole prescription of Vicodin for a simple tooth extraction when Advil could work? When my 17 year old son had his wisdom teeth removed he was given a large size pill bottle of Vicodin and he didn't even have much pain. Same thing when my husband had knee surgery - he just needed 1 or 2 pills not a huge prescription.

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Avatar for user 'simpletrend'

simpletrend | November 4, 2010 at 12:36 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

I have difficulty believing this story. Having chronic pain, living in the San Diego area, and using the local doctors, never have I been offered prescription pain medicine. Complained three times to same doc as early as the year 2000, the response was usually a diplomatic version of "yeah, we're all in pain", more of a diplomatic dismissal than much else.

So, enter the medical marijuana doctors, definitely a specialty field that has bloomed in the last several years. At least they take the complaints of chronic pain seriously, asking for a history of the pain and any conditions you may have, etc., and then they may recommend marijuana. In my case, they found that yes, I did qualify.

Because of these experiences, whenever I read that most local non-medical-marijuana doctors were directed to help patients with chronic pain by some sort of directing agency, I sort of have a "diplomatic dismissal" of the assertion. It simply doesn't seem to be true. Perhaps they do prescribe pain medicines for a time period after surgical wounding, but that's not really a chronic pain situation, that's an acute pain situation that resolves itself as healing occurs.

Ah, I get what's wrong with this article, it's describing a strawman. Doctors were directed by a "joint commission", according to the text, to better treat "chronic pain." The rest of the text explains how patients save medicine given to them for post-surgical "acute pain".

I reckon that's like mixing apples and oranges, or restated, the article makes a false equivalence.

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