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 criminal cases against physicians charged with opioid-related offenses reported in the US news media.
Methods: We searched the Nexis Uni® database for news media 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 news media reports include defendant’s age, sex, clinical specialty, type of crime and legal consequences.
Results: The annual number of criminal cases against physicians charged with opioid-related offenses reported in the US news media increased from 0 in 1995 to 42 in 2019. Of the 372 physician defendants in these criminal cases, 90.1% were male, 27.4% were 65 years and older, and 23.4% were charged in Florida. Of the 358 physician defendants with known clinical specialty, 245 (68.4%) practiced in internal medicine, family medicine, or pain management. Drug trafficking was the most commonly convicted crime (accounting for 54.2% of all convicted cases), followed by fraud (19.1%), money laundering (11.0%) and manslaughter (5.6%). Of the 244 convicted physicians with known sentences, 85.0% were sentenced to prison with an average prison term of 127.3 ± 120.3 months.
Conclusions: The US news media has reported on an increasing number of opioid-related criminal cases against physicians from a wide variety of clinical specialties. The most commonly convicted crime in these cases is drug trafficking, followed by fraud, money laundering, and manslaughter.