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Addiction and Medical Treatment for Pain

Jason Reese

Jessica Grubb, the daughter of former Senator David Grubb, died last week of an overdose. She had entered college with great promise but became addicted to heroin shortly thereafter. A forum on opioid addiction introduced Jessica to President Obama, who was touched by her story and for whom the forum held major impact with regard to understanding the seriousness of the opioid addiction epidemic. When Jessica’s father told her story, she had overdosed on heroin several times already, and he was concerned the next time would be her last.

Then, there was some hope—his daughter got clean in August 2015. Seven months later, she would be dead, seemingly a result of being prescribed powerful and easy-access opioid painkillers after surgery for an infection. The prescribing doctor says he did not know Jessica was a recovering addict when he prescribed not only 50 pills of oxycodone but also an IV port in her arm to provide easier access for injecting drugs into the blood stream. She was dead within a day of leaving the hospital.

How Necessary Is Opioid Treatment for Pain?

The news of Jessica Grubb’s death came just a few days prior to news coverage about the New Jersey hospital that has launched an Alternative to Opiates program. St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson NJ has found other ways of treating pain to be highly effective, with nearly 75% of patients in the program finding relief without the use of opioid painkillers. Alternative treatments may include non-opioid medications, trigger point injections, nitrous oxide, and nerve blocks guided by ultrasounds. These findings, along with recent FDA changes to warnings for opioid drugs, are certainly making the case for doctors to begin prescribing opioids only as a last-case option.

Doctors, Addiction, and Liability

In mid-2015, the West Virginia Supreme Court found that patients could sue their doctors if negligently prescribed pain medication leads to addiction. Given the substantial number of people who receive pain prescriptions each year and the meteoric rise in addiction, it is not perhaps surprising to see doctors beginning to shoulder some of the responsibility for the problem.

For a medical malpractice case related to drug addiction to be successful, it is necessary to prove your doctor’s prescription was a breach of the duty of care due to you as a patient. This negligence could be a failure to notice developing addiction or it could be the dosage or type of drug prescribed. In cases like Jessica Grubb’s, it would be important to know if the doctors or medical facility were aware of Jessica’s history of addiction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend screening for substance abuse and mental health problems as a best practice, but this recommendation is often ignored or the screening only involves a self-report question given to the patient. Clearly, this is problematic, and while doctors and pharmacists scramble to devise new norms for treating pain, it is still inevitably the patient who suffers.

If you or a loved one is suffering from opioid addiction, and you believe the prescribing doctor’s prescribing practices may have been negligent, the medical malpractice and wrongful death attorneys at Wagner Reese can help. Call us today at (888) 204-8440 for a free consultation.

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