Accidental ingestion of prescription medications is one of the leading reasons for people to call poison control hotlines. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

By Rose Hoban

In the past decade, the number of people dying from overdose of prescription medications almost doubled, while overdose deaths from heroin have remained essentially flat. Many of those prescription drug deaths occurred with opiod pain relievers such as oxycodone (Oxycontin), hydrocodone (Percocet) and methadone given for pain relief.

And when doctors prescribe those medications, they can check to see if the person getting the prescription has been getting other opiods from other doctors.

But most doctors don’t check.

Only about a third of doctors who prescribe opiod medications actually refer to a state-maintained database that’s been in operation since 2007 to see which of their patients might be “doctor-shopping” for their medications.

“There’s no way to emphasize too much how prescription drugs have become the number-one cause of accidental death in this country, overtaking even automobile accidents,” said Sen. Austin Allran (R-Hickory).

“Everyone is familiar with illegal drugs, but we need to bring heightened attention of society that it’s prescription drugs that are doing even more damage.”

A bill that passed through the state Senate Tuesday afternoon would change that, requiring doctors to check the database when they prescribe these potentially lethal medications.

The bill would also require pharmacists to put information into the state database about who filled their prescriptions within three business days, but encourages them to do that sooner.

“There are 9.5 million people in North Carolina and there are over 17 million prescriptions of controlled substances that are dispensed, on an outpatient basis, every year,” said Kay Sanford, a researcher who investigates injuries and accidental deaths for the not-for-profit Project Lazarus. “That’s almost two scripts per North Carolina resident. That’s a lot.”

One reason doctors gave for not looking up patients in the controlled substances reporting database is that it can be cumbersome and time consuming to look up every patient.

“They complained they didn’t have time to do it,” Allran said.

The bill makes it possible for a nurse or someone else working in a doctor or dentist’s office to become authorized to look up patients on the system.

But in response to concerns that the information could be abused, the bill increases penalties for misuse of the data from $5,000 to $10,000.

“This bill takes very seriously that somebody with the delegated authority to access the system would abuse it in any way,” Allran said.

Sanford pointed to data showing that for people from the ages of 25 to 44, unintentional poisoning deaths are the most common form of accidental death, more common than motor vehicle accidents and firearms deaths. Some were simply taking pain medication for an injury and made a fatal mistake.

But some of these people were abusing their medications. And Sanford said that in many instances, patients get the drugs legitimately from doctors in their communities, and some go from doctor to doctor looking for repeat prescriptions.

Members of the state’s Child Fatality Task Force have been discussing the measure for more than a year, and the bill was one of the group’s priorities for this legislative session.

The bill makes its way to the House, where Allran predicts it will have an easy path to becoming law.

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

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