Texas Has a Prescription Drug Problem

How flawed data hides the severity of prescription drug abuse.

By Emily DonahueApril 27, 2015 1:13 pm

Illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine are serious health threats nationwide. But here in Texas, illegal drugs aren’t killing the most people – it’s the stuff prescribed by doctors.

In fact, more Texans die from prescription drug overdose annually than in traffic accidents, based on reported numbers. But state and national numbers aren’t telling the whole story, says Mary Ann Roser in the Austin American-Statesman.

Texas relies on inaccurate and incomplete information to track prescription drugs deaths, Roser says. So how is Texas tracking these deaths?

The Statesman worked with the Houston Chronicle to compare medical examiner reports and death certificates. They found that something gets lost in translation: Texas counts drug overdose deaths by looking at death certificate reports, but the numbers reported there don’t match what Roser and her team found digging into medical examiner reports.

“Death certificates aren’t open [to the public], so we couldn’t compare the medical examiner report for Patient X to the death certificate,” Roser says. “But what we could do was determine that based on raw numbers that we got from many large cities and even some small counties as well that the numbers didn’t match.”

Roser says medical examiner reports often show death due to multi-drug toxicity, which doesn’t pinpoint individual chemicals in the body. There’s also reports that list a person’s death due to a chronic condition, but don’t note whether the patient was taking prescription drugs to manage the illness.

Another issue? Roser says it’s up to a judge’s discretion whether an autopsy is even needed – so some deaths go without a visit to the medical examiner.

“We don’t even know about those because those aren’t even in the medical examiner reports,” she says.

In recent years, the rise in deaths attributed to painkillers has led to a broad crackdown on prescriptions. There are regulations on who can write prescriptions and how the pharmacy receives them, plus patient testing to spot abuse. But what more can be done to address the rising use of prescription painkillers?

Roser says there could be better drug tracking. In fact, there is legislation pending in Texas this session that would not only better track prescriptions, but would also share information with other states. “In some parts of Texas it’s real easy to go across state lines and get the drugs,” she says. “The other thing that’s been suggested is medical boards could be more proactive. They could look and see who the outliers are in prescribing drugs and then discipline these people or put a stop to it.”