Painkiller Prescriptions Climbing Steadily in NYC

Prescriptions for painkillers are increasing dramatically in New York City, according to the Health Department. More than 2 million prescriptions for drugs like Oxycontin and Vicodin were filled by city residents in 2010, up 22 percent from 2008.

“There’s been a rapid increase across the country, and it isn’t that people [and their medical conditions] haven’t changed,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, the city health commissioner. “What’s changed is the practices of doctors and others who prescribe these drugs. They’re just much more quick to treat pain with these drugs than they were in the past.”

Health officials examined state prescription drug data that didn’t identify the names, locations or specialties of providers. Farley said it’s apparent that much of the growth is coming from a small number of providers: 15 percent of doctors, dentists and other prescribers accounted for 82 percent of the prescriptions of the category of drugs known as opioids.

“I’m sure that the vast majority of these doctors are acting in ways they see as compassionate and appropriate,” Farley said, “but they may not be fully aware of the risks, and so we’re trying to draw attention to the problem and make them be more careful.”

The Health Department study didn't focus on how people were using painkillers, but cited a federal survey in which one in ten 18- to 25-year-olds in the city reported having abused painkillers in the preceding year.

Efforts are underway in Albany and Washington, D.C., to track prescriptions more closely and communicate more forcefully with doctors and others who may be prescribing inappropriately. One proposal includes requiring pharmacists to confirm prescriptions for certain drugs and subjecting them to fines, if they don’t.