As the world is learning of the facts surrounding the cause of Michael Jackson's death, I watch with a combination of frustration and hope. I am frustrated by the shock and fascination on the part of the media and viewing public at the role his physician played in administering a lethal dose of Diprivan (propophyl). I am hopeful because Michael Jackson's sad and untimely death is an opportunity to raise awareness of the role negligent physicians play in people's lives.
My street cred on this topic stems from times like last week when I stormed a clinic in Idaho to put on notice a doctor who had been misprescribing Xanax for a woman on methadone therapy. Her family had asked for my help. They had watched their daughter spiral deeper and deeper into the depths of prescription medication addiction. The methadone she was hooked on was supposed to help her get off street drugs, and it did, for a while. But her "dealer" prescribed her Xanax, a popular benzodiazopene used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Xanax is the same type of drug as Valium, and if you take it while you are on methadone therapy, you'll get high as a kite. Physicians know this, but most don't pay attention, and some prescribe with reckless abandon.
If a physician does not take a detailed addiction history from ANY patient to whom they prescribe a drug like Xanax, Valium or Oxycontin, they are abandoning their Hippocratic Oath and essentially becoming a dealer. They should be treated by law enforcement as such. These prescriptions have enormous medical value for a variety of ailments, but without proper screening of patients they are as deadly as cyanide and as disruptive as a loaded gun on a playground.
In a few cases, a physician genuinely may not have known what role they played in putting a patient at risk and would react with concern. Other physicians have actually said it was the patient's job to act responsibily -- demonstrating a profound and gross misunderstanding of the disease of addiction, our country's third leading killer. Still other physicians I have seen are almost sociopathic in their disinterest and seemed to have no conscience about their patients or their families after being paid for an office visit.
While I felt a sense of accomplishment in taking action against these practitioners and notifying the state medical board of their abuse, I think any real impact comes when someone loses their life and headlines grab the public's attention.
In watching the Michael Jackson news this week, that same sense of frustration returns. The greatest pop icon of our age died on the cusp of a comeback, while his devastated family tearfully provides testimonials about how his insular network of doctors never had his best interests at heart. His now fatherless children serve as living proof that Jackson's family members were right in their exasperation. In this drawn-out drama, they are far from unique.
As extraordinary as Michael Jackson's life story was, the story of his death is shockingly ordinary.
My frustration is that it's harder to buy a pre-paid cell phone in this country than it is to secure multiple legal prescriptions from different doctors to feed a deadly disease that hurts everyone surrounding the addicted patient. My frustration is that it takes a high-profile, headline-making event like the death of the King of Pop for us to examine accountability among the medical profession concerning contraindicated health risks for people struggling with addiction. My further frustration is that Michael Jackson's story is being perceived as unique while it's happening in living rooms across this nation daily, with real loved ones left behind crying real tears and sharing similar bewilderment that a "real doctor" was involved. But as I have learned as a person in recovery from my own drug addiction, frustration is an emotion we cannot afford. It must be turned into hope.
So my hope is that this coroner's ruling is a wake-up call for more checks and balances in the pharmacy system to prevent abuse of potentially dangerous prescriptions. My hope is that addiction be managed by physicians and the medical establishment in the same way diabetic patients are managed, with their chronic deadly condition at the heart of ALL treatment decisions. And my greatest hope is that I never have to fill out another police report or watch another news story about a doctor who provided a legal, physician directed regimen of a pharmaceutical that amounts to a potential death sentence for one of the 20 million Americans that suffer with addiction.