Can Doctors Face Charges If a Patient Overdoses?

A physician can face criminal charges due to the drug overdose death of a patient, as seen in Florida where recent legislation seeks to impose tougher penalties on physicians. While the threat of legal action makes many physicians think twice before prescribing pain medication, criminal prosecution is largely limited to physicians who distribute the drugs illegally or are guilty of other drug-related crimes.

Historically, it is rare for a physician to be prosecuted due to a patient’s decision to abuse prescription painkillers or another prescription drug. The number of criminal actions against doctors is going up, however, because of the skyrocketing number of drug overdose deaths reported in American emergency rooms.

Physicians and Criminal Charges

Criminal prosecutions of physicians remained low for most of the 1900s, but from 2000 through 2011, the prosecution rate was three times higher than the previous two decades, according to a Sept. 12, 2011 article detailing the rise in criminal prosecutions for doctors from Thomson Reuters.

In 2011, Florida passed a law to cut down on its number of so-called pill mills, where prescriptions for opioids like oxycodone were given out in high numbers. Under the law, physicians are no longer allowed to distribute painkillers, although they are still available from pharmacies with a valid prescription.

Physician Challenges When Prescribing Painkillers

The American College of Preventive Medicine outlines guidelines for physicians who prescribe painkillers. The group calls for more education about this class of drugs and ways to identify addictions in patients. ACPM says physicians face many complicated outcomes when prescribing the drugs, including:

  • Legal action due to inadequate or failed pain treatment
  • Criminal charges for abuse, addiction, or death
  • Burden of numerous federal guidelines and their implications
  • Investigations or action by State Board of Medical Examiners, Drug Enforcement Agency, State Bureau of Narcotics, etc.
  • Complaints by pharmacies

Overdoses and Prescription Painkillers

Nearly 15,000 people died from prescription painkiller overdoses in 2008—more than three times the 4,000 deaths attributed to the drugs in 1999, according to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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