The North Carolina Medical Board is investigating 60 doctors and physician assistants with patients who died of overdoses of prescription drugs.
Medical board officials tell The Charlotte Observer that two or more patients being treated by each doctor took fatal overdoes of prescription painkillers within a 12-month span.
State law prevents the board from releasing the names of doctors being investigated. The investigation also includes 12 more doctors and physician assistants who prescribed high doses or large volumes of opioids.
Fatal overdoses kill more than 1,000 people a year in North Carolina. Nearly half involve prescriptions written within 60 days of the victim’s death.
In some cases, there’s no direct link between a death and what the doctor prescribed, board officials said. But regulators will look into whether patients received substandard care.
“The board views this as a serious problem that requires ongoing attention,” said Dr. Scott Kirby, the agency’s chief medical officer. “They have no tolerance for incorrect or substandard prescribing.”
Regulators now use a statewide database to spot potentially reckless prescribing. Officials say they will review the state data every three months and launch investigations in addition to receiving complaints.
States such as Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas for years have used prescription databases to spot improper prescribing and send information to law enforcement or medical boards for review.
A prescription database maintained by North Carolina since 2007 was used only to help physicians and pharmacists review whether patients were getting drugs from multiple providers. The Medical Board received permission to access the information last year.
Officials said they are already hearing complaints from patients that physicians are arbitrarily reducing the strength and quantity of painkillers that they prescribe out of fear of being investigated.
Kirby said the Medical Board is trying to strike the right balance between protecting the public from dangerous prescribing and ensuring medication is accessible for cancer patients, the terminally ill and others suffering with severe chronic pain.
State Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who supports stricter oversight of prescribing practices, said stiff sanctions are necessary for improper prescribing.
“There needs to be more accountability,” Horn said. “A higher level of accountability must be met when you impact the lives of others.”
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