By Simon Mott
Doctor shopping or prescription drug abuse is out of control. It now accounts for more deaths than cocaine and heroin combined. Who is to blame? Should we accuse the doctors of making it too easy for people to get hold of these substances? Or is it the fault of patients who are often so desperate that they try every trick in the book to get their hands on medication?
The shocking death of Michael Jackson five years ago this week sparked a huge debate on the availability of prescription drugs. His autopsy determined that a deadly mix of strong sedatives triggered a cardiac arrest – these drugs had been prescribed for him by his personal physician. The coroner concluded: “This cocktail was a recipe for disaster.”
There was an outcry as to how something like this could happen, but what lessons have we learned from this tragedy?
There is no doubt doctors must take some responsibility for the prescription drug epidemic or doctor shopping. A court in the US found Dr Conrad Murray guilty of the manslaughter of Michael Jackson, and he was given a four-year jail sentence. The evidence suggests he allowed the star to be using enough sedatives to put an army to sleep. There are doctors out there who are too willing to prescribe dangerous medications, this needs to change, but there are also patients who seek these physicians out.
Who is to blame for Doctor Shopping?
The term Doctor Shopping refers to a patient visiting more than one doctor to collect medication for recreational use.
It wasn’t until after I cleaned up from heroin ten years ago that I first came across the term ‘doctor shopping’. This activity would frequently be mentioned by clients in the rehabs where I worked. These were often people who looked upon the act of going to a drug dealer as a bit of a taboo, yet they had no qualms about using doctors to satisfy their addiction. Prescribed medication can certainly seem more legit, but these substances can be more dangerous than street drugs.
Recently researchers at McGill University in the US, found prescribed painkiller medication to be responsible for more deaths than cocaine and heroin combined. The number of fatalities in America from narcotic overdoses has tripled in the last decade, and there is no sign that this trend is changing anytime soon. The idea that prescription medications are somehow safer than street drugs is just wrong.
As an insider working closely with doctors, I can tell you there is often a conflict when it comes to prescribing medication to addicts. These are people with a habit to maintain, and they know how to use the system to do it.
Addicts can be extremely manipulative; this is how the term doctor shopping evolved. The doctor may be afraid to say ‘no’ because of the fear of being accused of ignoring symptoms or losing a private patient. Emotional blackmail can be used along with blatant dishonesty, suicide threats, and even intimidation.
I have personally witnessed a client screaming and rolling around on the ground as if she were dying and demanding Fentanyl – this drug is many more times stronger than morphine and usually only used after surgery. The doctors had investigated her claims, but test after test found nothing physically wrong with her.
Another client told me she stole her mum’s morphine which had been prescribed to manage cancer pain. After her mother died, she demanded that the doctor continue prescribing the drugs with threats that she would ‘sell herself’ to buy street drugs if he didn’t. He continued writing prescriptions for another ten years.
Last month we had a 30-year-old man check in from Australia, and his medication bag was bigger than his luggage. Thankfully, within a few weeks, he was able to come off the majority of these drugs, but in my opinion, none of them were necessary.
More needs to be done to shed light on what is often a hidden problem. This is why we can be thankful to people like Cat Marnell, a recent client of our rehab, who is willing to be open about her previous addiction to Xanax and Adderall.
The problem is that while this medication can bring relief to the diagnosed problem initially, there are risks involved in prolonged usage. If the underlying causes of the symptoms are not properly addressed, it means that over time, the patient will face the same addiction issues that all addicts face.
So back the earlier question, what have we learned in the five years since the death of Michael Jackson?
One of my clients summed the situation up well with this quote:
Some of the most abused prescribed drugs would include:
- Opiates such as morphine, pethidine, codeine, and oxycontin
Sedatives such as valium, xanax, and ativan
Stimulants such as ritalin, adderall, and amphetamine
At the Hope Rehab Center here in Thailand, we are increasingly working with clients who have suffered greatly due to prescription drug addiction. We provide a sanctuary where these people can regain control over their lives. Contact us now.