Doctors are fueling the nation’s prescription drug epidemic and represent the primary source of narcotic painkillers for chronic abusers, according to a new government study.
The finding challenges a widely held belief that has long guided policymakers: That the epidemic is caused largely by abusers getting their drugs without prescriptions, typically from friends and family.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which conducted the study, said the research showed the need for greater focus on doctors who are “problem prescribers.”
The study, published Monday by the Journal of the American Medical Assn., echoes a 2012 Times investigation that found drugs prescribed by doctors caused or contributed to nearly half of the prescription overdose deaths in Southern California in recent years. The Times also revealed that authorities were failing to mine a rich database of prescribing records to identify and stop reckless prescribers.
Frieden said the new study, appearing in JAMA’s Internal Medicine journal, along with The Times investigation and a second JAMA article on the widespread use of narcotic painkillers in Tennessee, all showed that physician prescribing was a key contributor to the crisis of addiction and overdose that has continued to mount since the CDC declared it an epidemic in 2011.
Prescription drugs — mostly narcotic painkillers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin — contribute to more than 16,000 fatal overdoses annually and are the main reason drugs have surpassed traffic accidents as a cause of death in the U.S.
“At this point, virtually everyone recognizes that this is a serious problem that has been getting much worse,” Frieden said in an interview with The Times. “What we now are figuring out is what’s going to work to reverse it.”
CDC researchers analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual snapshot of the use of illegal drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, as well as the “nonmedical use” of prescription drugs. The survey is widely used by researchers to gauge the scope and contours of the nation’s drug problem and by policymakers to determine how best to combat it.
But CDC researchers were puzzled by one aspect of the survey: It showed that prescription drug misuse had been flat in recent years, even as emergency room visits, treatment center admissions and overdose deaths involving medications all rose dramatically. So they decided to take a closer look by examining differences among various types of prescription drug abusers.
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