HARRISBURG -- Ask any physician in Pennsylvania about prescription medication misuse and they'll tell you it's a national problem with the Keystone State one of the worst. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Report from November 2011, Pennsylvania ranks ninth in the nation for drug overdose deaths with 15.1 for every 100,000 population.
While these medications are sometimes stolen from patients, hospitals, and pharmacies, and later sold on the street, what's equally disturbing is that in some cases doctors are duped to write prescriptions by those running scams, often called doctor shoppers.
In response, the Pennsylvania Medical Society (PAMED) is launching an educational campaign for physicians to raise awareness of pill-seeking doctor shoppers, while pushing for state legislation to arm physicians with a tool -- a controlled substance database -- to help detect scammers shopping for pills. The campaign, titled "Pills for ills, not thrills," debuted at the Pennsylvania Medical Society's annual House of Delegates meeting on Oct. 27 at the Hershey Lodge and Convention Center.
"Our members have been vocal about the need to identify patients who inappropriately seek controlled substances," says Marilyn Heine, MD, 2011-12 president of PAMED. "Physicians are interested in tools to help address this concern."
As part of the campaign, an educational reference booklet produced by PAMED helps physicians identify red flags related to pill-seeking doctor shoppers, while also suggesting screening tools to separate patients with true pain from scammers. Since some scammers may be hooked on prescription medications, the booklet also provides resources for addiction treatment.
In addition, the booklet contains information that physicians can provide to patients on how to properly dispose of medications that are no longer needed.
C. Richard Schott, MD, 2012-13 president of PAMED, says scammers in search of a pill fix are harmful in more than one way, and that's why physicians are concerned.
"No doctor wants to be scammed," he said. "Scammers waste valuable time that could be spent with patients who have truly painful conditions, and furthermore diverts medications away from proper use. Diversion of medications by scammers leads to misuse and abuse that can result in overdoses and untimely death."
In addition to the PAMED training booklet, Dr. Schott believes a controlled substance database would help, and he's hopeful that politicians in Harrisburg will play a role in the battle against pill scammers by passing legislation to address the matter.
"It would be a huge help to any physician to be able to find out if the person sitting in their office has recently filled a prescription from another physician for a controlled substance," he said. "Scammers know that Pennsylvania physicians don't have the luxury of a controlled substance database."
The ability to access a controlled substance database to help identify scammers is a reality for physicians in many states, but not in Pennsylvania. Prior to writing a prescription for a controlled substance, doctors in many other states can determine if the person sitting in the exam room has already received narcotics from another physician or pharmacy.
PAMED will press for a new law to be passed in the upcoming legislative cycle that would allow Pennsylvania physicians to have the same ability as their counterparts in other states. The proposed database could only be accessed by authorized persons for medical purposes or by law enforcement only in cases where they prove probable cause.
In addition to the reference booklet available to physicians during PAMED's House of Delegates meeting, the organization is sponsored a continuing medical education class on the topic as one of the events at the annual meeting.
The booklet is available for free as a pdf at www.pamedsoc.org/pillscam .