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At Issue: Prescription Problem, IT Solution?

Technology initiatives are showing results at combating pharmaceutical abuse and other drug-related social problems.

by / June 25, 2012
P.J.M. Flickr cc P.J.M. *extremely slow on flickr :( sorry*/Flickr CC

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for a month. “Many ended up in the hands of people who misused or abused them,” said a report on the CDC website.

Deaths resulting from prescription painkillers have reached epidemic levels in the past decade, the report continued. “The number of overdose deaths is now greater than those of deaths from heroin and cocaine combined. A big part of the problem is nonmedical use of prescription painkillers — using drugs without a prescription, or using drugs just for the ‘high’ they cause.”

Global pharmaceutical sales are closing on $1 trillion per year and, according to the New York Times, lobbying by pharmacists and drugstores has hindered efforts to put stricter controls on even the most-abused pharmaceuticals.

An effort that does seem to be moving forward is something called “prescription drug monitoring programs” (PDMPs). Last Thursday, June 21, the Obama administration announced a two-state pilot project that would ramp up the use of statewide electronic databases to collect, monitor and analyze data from pharmacies and physicians to identify a patients’ controlled drug history. “Improving real-time access to the information contained in the PDMPs,” said the announcement, “will provide an incentive to health care providers to use the program.” While nearly all states have such programs or have legislation authorizing them, the CDC says they are often not used.

In a related issue, Oregon in 2006 made over-the-counter medications that contain the key ingredient in methamphetamine — pseudoephedrine — available only by prescription. By 2009 Oregon's violent crime rate took the biggest drop in the nation. Law enforcement officials attributed the drop to the prescription-only law. Today in Oregon, meth lab busts are down 96 percent since the law was enacted. Mississippi passed a similar law in 2011 and meth busts have since dropped 60 percent. However, the prescription-only requirement for such drugs has been fought by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) a pharmaceutical industry group, which ironically, is pushing an electronic tracking system instead.

“Technology plays a critical role in our comprehensive efforts to address our nation’s prescription drug abuse epidemic,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of national drug control policy, in a release. “Together with education, proper disposal practices, and enforcement, improving existing prescription monitoring programs is a priority for this administration.  We hope these innovative pilots will help usher in an era of ‘PDMPs 2.0’ across the nation to improve real-time data sharing … increase interoperability of data among states, and expand the number of people using these important tools.”

At Issue: Can “PDMP 2.0” make a dent in America’s prescription drug abuse epidemic, and can the initiative survive drug lobbying efforts?


Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.

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