Can a physician be held responsible for opioid addiction?

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The opioid epidemic has become the most significant public health crisis in decades, breaking apart families and destroying the futures of millions of individuals throughout the United States. Addiction to prescription opioids can occur among those who would never try illegal drugs because they believe medication provided by a doctor must be safe. In some circumstances, a physician can be found guilty of malpractice for prescribing opioids to a patient who develops an addiction. Opioid malpractice claims

About Prescription Opioids

Prescription opioid painkillers reduce the sending of pain messages to the brain because they bind to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the body.  Some commonly prescribed opioid medications include:

  • Fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora, Abstral, and Onsolis)
  • Hydrocodone (Hysingla ER and Zohydro ER)
  • Hydrocodone/acetaminophen (Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, and Vicodin)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid and Exalgo)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Methadone (Dolophine and Methadose)
  • Morphine (Kadian, MS Contin, and Morphabond)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin and Oxaydo)
  • Oxycodone and acetaminophen (Percocet and Roxicet)

Opioids can greatly improve the quality of life for people who suffer from moderate to severe chronic pain, in addition to relieving temporary discomfort from various surgical procedures. However, these medications have a high potential for addiction when they are not used properly.

People who becomes addicted to prescription opioids can experience dramatic changes in mood, behavior, and physical health. They might:

  • Lie or steal to obtain medication, risking a criminal record
  • Begin using heroin when they can't obtain prescription opioids
  • Lose their job due to addiction-related performance issues
  • Become estranged from friends and family
  • Experience painful and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms when they stop the medication
  • Increase their dosage, risking a fatal overdose

When Addiction Becomes Malpractice

Addiction to opioid pain medication takes a terrible toll, but the roots of addiction are complex. Both genetic and environmental factors come into play, so the fact that someone has become addicted to painkillers isn't necessarily the doctor's fault.

In order to have a valid malpractice claim, you need to show that the doctor didn't follow accepted medical standards for the use of opioid medication. Examples of circumstances that may form the basis of a claim include:

  • The patient wasn't adequately informed of the addictive nature of the medication and the benefits of non-opioid alternatives.
  • The dosage prescribed was too high given the patient's condition and medical history.
  • Multiple refills were given without proper follow-up appointments to make sure the medication was being used properly and that the patient's condition still warranted the use of opioids.
  • The doctor allowed long-term use of narcotic pain medication without investigating non-narcotic alternatives or drug-free ways to address the patient's chronic pain.
  • The doctor knew the patient had previously struggled with addiction but prescribed addictive opioid medications anyway.
  • The doctor committed an ethical breach such as accepting compensation from pharmaceutical companies for writing a certain number of opioid prescriptions.

Proving Malpractice

All types of medical malpractice must prove four key elements:

  • Duty. The doctor was providing care to the patient in a professional capacity.
  • Breach of duty. The doctor's actions constitute a negligent deviation from the standard of care for the patient's condition.
  • Damages. The patient suffered harm resulting from the doctor's negligent care.
  • Causation. The patient's damages were caused by the doctor's actions.

Building a malpractice case for opioid addiction will involve seeking the opinion of multiple medical experts. They will look at the circumstances surrounding the case to determine if the doctor acted inappropriately in providing opioids to the patient.

Available Compensation

A malpractice claim for opioid addiction can include the following types of compensation:

  • Medical expenses related to addiction treatment or emergency care for an opioid overdose
  • Lost wages due to the consequences of addiction
  • Pain and suffering, including both the physical and mental toll of addiction
  • Funeral and burial expenses, if the addicted patient suffered a fatal overdose

Seeking Legal Representation

Malpractice cases involving opioid addiction can present special challenges, which is why it's important to work with an experienced attorney who can advocate for your right to a fair settlement. Call today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with Neblett, Beard & Arsenault's dedicated legal team.