Background: Pharmaceutical companies and drug distributors are intensely scrutinized in numerous lawsuits for their role in instigating the opioid epidemic. Many individual physicians have also been held accountable for activities related to prescribing opioid medications. The purpose of this study was to examine the epidemiologic patterns of lawsuits against physicians charged with opioid-related crimes in the United States.
Methods : We searched the Nexis Uni ® database for newspaper reports on physicians who had been arrested, indicted or criminally charged for illegally prescribing opioids between January 1995 and December 2019. Data collected from the newspaper reports include defendant’s age, sex, clinical specialty, type of crime and legal consequences.
Results : The annual number of lawsuits against physicians charged with opioid-related crimes reported by US newspapers increased from 0 in 1995 to 43 in 2019. Of the 384 physician defendants in these lawsuits, 90.4% were male, 28.0% were 65 years and older (mean=59.5 ± 15.8 years), and 23.4% were charged in Florida. Of the 373 physician defendants with known clinical specialty, 243 (65.1%) practiced in internal medicine, family medicine, or pain management. Of the 248 lawsuits with known outcomes, 244 (98.4%) of the defendants were convicted of criminal charges and 4 were acquitted. Drug trafficking was the most commonly convicted crime (accounting for 54.2% of all convicted crimes), followed by fraud (19.1%), money laundering (11.0%) and manslaughter (5.6%). Of the convicted physicians with known sentences, 89.5% were sentenced to jail with an average jail time of 127.3 ± 120.3 months.
Conclusions : An increasing number of physicians from a wide variety of clinical specialties is prosecuted for opioid-related crimes with high conviction rates and severe penalties. The most common crime charged is drug trafficking, followed by fraud, money laundering, and manslaughter. Keywords: Drug overdose, Drug trafficking, Opioid Epidemic, Medical fraud, Prescription opioids