Opiate drugs can be very dangerous. They have important medical uses but have been overprescribed and have led to addiction and overdose. Doctors do not always take responsibility for their actions. If a doctor prescribed opiates and the patient becomes addicted to painkillers, the doctor is not likely to admit that they may have played a part by prescribing dangerous medication in the first place.
A doctor can be responsible for injuries caused to a patient, including developing an opioid addiction. To be found liable, the doctor must have deviated from the standards of care in causing the injury. This can be complicated and a medical malpractice attorney can help you understand if you may have a medical malpractice claim based on opioid addiction. Contact Gilman & Bedigian today online or by phone at 800-529-6162 for help with your malpractice claim.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a class of drugs that include natural and synthetic drugs, including heroin, morphine, codeine, and opium. Many opioids are synthetic compounds that are made in labs and include several prescription drugs. According to the CDC, the most commonly prescribed opioids include:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet)
- Oxymorphone (Opana)
- Morphine (Kadian and Avinza)
- Fentanyl (like Ultiva, Sublimaze, and Duragesic patch)
Opioids interact with opioid receptors in the brain and body and produce a euphoric feeling, relaxation, and pain relief. The body releases dopamine, which can make people want to repeat the pleasant experience, reinforcing the desire to take the drugs. Side effects can include confusion, drowsiness, nausea, slowed breathing, and constipation.
These drugs are generally considered safe when they are prescribed under a doctor’s supervision and taken for a short period. However, these drugs are also subject to misuse if taken in increased doses or for prolonged periods of time. Opioids carry a risk of dependence and can lead to addiction, overdose, and death.
There can be an increased risk of overdose and death when opioids are combined with other substances, including alcohol, narcotics, or benzodiazepines. Alcohol and benzodiazepines, like Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin are nervous system depressants. Combining these drugs with opioids can cause sedation, suppress breathing, and impair brain function.
How Addicting Can Opiates Be for Patients?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the amount of opioids prescribed and sold in the U.S. quadrupled since 1999, even with no overall change in the amount of pain reported by Americans. Since that time, there have been over 165,000 prescription opioid-related deaths. More than 40 people die every day from overdoses involving prescription painkillers.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “drug addiction is a chronic disease characterized by compulsive, or uncontrollable, drug seeking and use despite harmful consequences and long-lasting changes in the brain. The changes can result in harmful behaviors by those who misuse drugs, whether prescription or illicit drugs.”
Longer-term use of prescription opioids can cause people to develop a tolerance, meaning that they need more frequent doses and/or higher doses to get the same effects. The need may go beyond their prescription amount, leaving the individual trying to find other ways to get the drugs, including taking medication from someone else, prescription fraud, or buying opioids illegally.
After continued use, people can develop drug dependence, with a physical dependence requiring the presence of the drug in the body to be able to function normally. Without continued use, the individual can feel withdrawal. Symptoms of withdrawal include difficulty sleeping, muscle and bone pain, uncontrolled movements, cold flashes, and severe cravings. Going without opioids for someone who is severely dependent can be life-threatening, requiring medical supervision to stop taking the drugs.
What Injuries Can Be Caused by Opioid Addiction?
Injuries caused by opioid addiction can depend on the level of addiction and individual circumstances of the user. If the addiction is limited to using opioids legally prescribed by their doctor, injuries can include overdose, hypoxia, or physical injuries. If addiction leads to using illegal drugs, injuries can include infection from using shared needles, abuse from physical violence, and overdose.
According to the CDC, in 2020, there were 91,799 drug overdose-related deaths in the U.S. This represented an increase of more than 30% from 2019. Approximately 75% of those drug overdose deaths involved an opioid.
Overdose is the most common injury related to opioid addiction. Overdose is not just for street drugs. Someone can overdose on prescription medications, including opioids. Opioid overdose involves taking enough of the drugs to produce life-threatening symptoms or death. Overdose can involve cardiac arrest where the heart stops or breathing rates that are too slow or stop.
When someone is not breathing and the heart is not beating, oxygen cannot get to the body’s organs and brain. If the overdose patient is not treated and does not recover in time, it can lead to death. There are ways to treat an overdose patient, including medication. A common treatment option involves naloxone.
Naloxone is a medication that rapidly binds to opioid receptors and blocks the effects of the opioid drugs. This can be done with an injection or through a nasal spray (NARCAN). In many states, NARCAN is available without a prescription, in an effort to reduce overdose deaths.
Hypoxia and Brain Damage
Hypoxia is a condition that results from a lack of oxygen to the brain. Hypoxia can have several causes, including suffocation, traumatic injuries, stroke, or in hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) birth injuries. When the brain does not get enough oxygen, it can cause cells to die, resulting in brain damage and mental and physical dysfunction. If it is not treated, hypoxia can lead to death.
Opioid misuse can slow down breathing, with an increased risk when the patient is under the influence of other drugs, including alcohol or benzodiazepines. If breathing slows too much, too little oxygen can get to the brain. Lack of oxygen, even for a number of minutes, can begin to cause short-term and long-term damage, including neurological and psychological impairment, brain damage, coma, or death.
Opioids and Street Drugs
An addiction to opioids increases the need to continue to take the medication, often at increased dosage and more often every day. It can be harder and harder to get access to opioids and prescriptions can fall short of the amount a user wants to take. Eventually, many people who are addicted to opioids look for other ways to get their drugs, including taking street drugs like heroin, illegal fentanyl, and other synthetic opioids.
It may be easier and less expensive to access heroin than getting legal opioids. When an addict is taking street drugs instead of drugs prescribed by a doctor, they may not know what they are getting. Taking too much at one time can lead to an overdose, brain damage, or death. Some users try injecting opioids or heroin, and because of impaired judgment, may end up contracting infections diseases like HIV or hepatitis from sharing needles.
Opioid use can cause confusion, impaired judgment, drowsiness, and impaired function. This could lead to serious injuries from falls, car accidents, and exposure. If someone is using opioids while working, it can cause a workplace injury or injury involving heavy machinery.
Can You Sue Your Doctor If You Develop an Opioid Addiction?
Medical malpractice claims are based on professional negligence. In order for the doctor to be found liable because of medical malpractice, the injury victim must show:
- The doctor owed the patient a duty of care;
- The doctor breached the duty of care by deviating from medical standards;
- The breach caused the patient’s injury; and
- The patient suffered harm or damage as a result.
When there is a patient-doctor relationship, the doctor owes the patient a duty of care to act as a reasonable doctor would under similar circumstances. This is generally determined by the medical standard of care. Deviating from the standard of care means doing something that another doctor would not do, in similar circumstances. The standard of care can be based on:
- Doctor’s degree of skill
- Doctor’s education and training
- Practice area or specialization
- Medical community
How can you prove the standard of care in a medical malpractice case? In most situations, the standard of care is explained using a medical expert. A medical expert is an expert witness used in malpractice cases to tell the jury what the standards of medical care are and how the doctor involved deviated, or did not deviate, from the standard of care. This is often someone who works or teaches in the same medical area as the doctor involved in the case.
For example, if a patient was alleging dental malpractice, they might use an expert witness who is a dentist to explain what doctors would do under certain circumstances and how the dentist in the case did something different, causing an injury.
When Is an Opioid Addiction Caused by Malpractice?
Generally, to show that an opioid addiction was caused by malpractice, the patient could show their doctor deviated from standard medical practice by:
- Unnecessarily prescribing medication
- Overprescribing medication
- Prescribing a dangerous medication
- Failing to talk about the risks of opioid addiction
- Continuing to prescribe medication when it is no longer needed
- Failure to monitor the patient
For example, a doctor should be careful about prescribing powerful drugs with a risk of addiction to patients who have had a past history of drug abuse or addiction, particularly involving opioids or opiates. These patients may be at a higher risk of developing a disorder or addiction. This can be part of a patient’s medical records or talking to the patient about their history with drug use and addiction.
There are lots of pain treatments available, including non-medication-based treatments, like physical therapies and psychological therapies. Physical therapy could include recommending exercise, clinical massage, or hydrotherapy. Psychological therapy including mediation or cognitive behavioral therapy is another option.
There are also medications that are not as dangerous as powerful painkillers, beginning with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief. Common OTC pain medication can include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin, or acetaminophen (Tylenol). There are also higher prescription NSAIDs, like Celebrex, Toradol, and Mobic.
CDC Guidelines for Doctors Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain
In response to the U.S. opioid overdose epidemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines for promoting patient care and safety. Doctors wrote almost 250 million prescriptions for opioids in 2013, enough for one prescription for every adult in the country. This is even with doctors knowing there are serious risks of opioid use disorder and overdose.
As many as 25% of patients receiving long-term opioid therapy in primary care struggle with opioid use disorder. The CDC made 12 recommendations for opioid prescriptions for chronic, including:
- Considering nonopioid therapy and considering opioids only if the benefits outweigh the risks.
- Establishing treatment goals and when to discontinue use if the benefits do not outweigh the risks.
- Discussing risks and benefits with patients to make informed decisions.
- Begin using immediate-release drugs instead of long-acting or extended-release opioids.
- Prescribe the lowest effective dose to begin treatment.
- Prescribe short durations for acute pain.
- Evaluate benefits and dangers with patients regularly during treatment.
- Evaluate risk factors to mitigate risk.
- Review drug monitoring information relating to opioids.
- Consider urine drug testing before prescribing.
- Avoid concurrent prescriptions for opioids and benzodiazepines.
- Offer treatment for patients with opioid use disorder.
How Can a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit Help?
A serious drug addiction can take a serious toll on individuals and their families. Many people who become addicted to opioids that were originally prescribed by doctors can suffer serious injury, overdose, or death. A medical malpractice lawsuit may be a way for the injury victim to hold a negligent doctor responsible and help get compensation to pay for their losses.
A malpractice lawsuit may also be a way to help others. If you can show that a doctor who fails to follow proper medical standards has to pay for their errors, hospitals and doctors can react and re-evaluate their practices to help protect patients, leading to overall improved care for others.
Recovery can be difficult and expensive. Drug treatment programs can cost a lot of money and take a lot of time. It may not work on the first or second try, and someone may have to continue to go through drug rehab programs to improve their chances to stay clean. Damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit can help cover the costs of these programs, and any other medical care needed after an opioid addiction.
If you want to know if you have a malpractice claim after an opioid addiction, talk to an experienced medical malpractice attorney. Contact experienced medical malpractice trial attorneys Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.