Study: Legal risk for prescribing painkillers not significant

Lately, legislatures and regulatory authorities have been paying a lot of attention to the prescription of painkillers, noting that some can kill if prescribed irresponsibly and that other opioid may be diverted for addictive use. Not surprisingly, such has made some physicians afraid to prescribe opioids at all. In fact, primary care doctors say the biggest obstacle they face in prescribing opioids to treat chronic pain is scrutiny from regulators and law enforcement officials, a recent survey found.

The thing is, PCPs' fears are misguided, according to a new study appearing this month in the journal Pain Medicine. Researchers, who reviewed nine years of medical board and local, state and federal law enforcement charges against doctors for improperly prescribing opioids, found that very few resulted in any real problems for physicians. In fact, only 725 doctors--or one-tenth of one percent of practicing physicians--were accused of criminal or administrative offenses during the period studied, 1998 to 2006.

It's worth noting, however, that the study has some harsh critics. They contend that the number of doctors who get investigated is much larger than the number who are actually charged. They note that fear of being investigated, even if that investigation is unlikely to lead to charges, is enough to chill physicians' use of painkillers anyway. And that, say pain management specialists, means that physicians may refuse to treat patients that have severe chronic pain with the high doses they need to get relief.

To learn more about the study:
- read this AMNews piece

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