KSJ Tracker November 12, 2012

Death by Prescription Drug

Source: Wikipedia

In September, the Los Angeles Times ran a cause-of-death analysis based on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and reported that -  "propelled by an increase in prescription narcotic overdoses" - drug deaths in the country now outnumbered even auto accident fatalities.

This Sunday, the newspaper followed that up with a much closer look at the problem, the first in what's described as an occasional series - Dying for Relief -  on America's addition to prescription painkillers. Titled "Legal Drugs, Deadly Outcomes" and written by Scott Glover and Lisa Girion, with video and photos by Liz O. Baylen, the story is a both a vividly written look at people who died through painkiller use and a detailed investigation of some of the doctors in the Los Angeles area who specialize in treating chronic pain.

The writers pull both these themes together from the beginning, starting with a stark list of six deaths, each described by a single sentence. As an example:

Jennifer Thurber was curled up in bed, pale and still, when her father found her.
Karl Finnila sat down on a curb to rest and never got up.

And they move right from those images to the fact that all six of these dead people were patients of one doctor in the Los Angeles area who specialized in writing narcotic painkiller descriptions. Not that the focus is on a single physician. Glover and Girion gradually broaden their scope to an apparently key group of practitioners: "Seventy-one — 0.1% of all practicing doctors in the four counties — wrote prescriptions for drugs that caused or contributed to 298 deaths."

The writers skillfully pull off a balance between bullet-pointed facts and emotion-loaded vignettes in the way they tell this story. In one of the most compelling, a son finds his father dead and then smashes the medicine bottles against a wall, a fact detailed in the investigation report.

As the paper notes, this is just the first in the series and there are other important aspects of the story that definitely need to be told. For instance, the reporters focus on people overdosing on their prescription drugs although the CDC has noted, in fact, that a majority of these deaths occur in people "borrowing" the medication of others.

But that's just another way of saying that this is both an enormous and a complicated issue that, as the paper as already determined, is worthy of a series worth of stories. It's worth noting that this one also includes not only the video I mentioned above but some rather clever interactive maps and graphics. So here's to the second installment!

                                                                                                                                                           ---Deborah Blum


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