By Michael A. FuocoÂ /Â Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The epidemic's statistics are staggering -- prescription drug abuse is the nation's leading cause of death, contributing to nearly 40,000 deaths annually.
About 7 million Americans abuse prescription drugs, primarily pain killers -- 21/2 times more than all those using cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens and inhalants.
And prescription drug abuse contributes to almost $200 billion in health care costs a year, U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton noted Friday at "Death by Medication -- Investigating the Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic," a seminar presented by the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne University.
"Many Americans benefit from the appropriate use of prescription pain relievers but when abused, they can be as addictive and dangerous as illegal drugs," he said.
And therein lies the rub: Opioids, such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin, among others, can provide much-needed relief to those suffering from pain if properly used, but the potential for abuse is high.
"We have to be able to establish a critical balance addressing the terrible drug problem while still maintaining a pathway for those with legitimate need for pain management," said Mary G. Mihalyo, an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at Duquesne University's Mylan School of Pharmacy, where she teaches courses in palliative care, pain management and women's health care issues. Her address was titled "Pharmageddon -- The Risks of Opioid Use in Pain Management and Palliative Care."
Bruce W. Dixon, director of the Allegheny County Health Department from 1992 until earlier this year, told the 100 lawyers, physicians, pharmacists, other professionals and students in attendance that what Pennsylvania needs to help stem the epidemic is a statewide prescription drug database. With one, doctors and pharmacists could check to see if a patient has been "doctor shopping" to get multiple prescriptions for pain killers, said Dr. Dixon, who recently was appointed medical director of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Dr. Wecht, the noted forensic pathologist, discussed "Determining Cause and Manner of Death in Prescription Drug Abuse and Sudden Deaths."
Frederick W. Fochtman, director of the institute and of Duquesne's master of forensic science and law program, also spoke.
All of the presenters also participated in a panel discussion.