The numbers are nothing short of staggering. Nearly one-third of all Americans — 100 million people — suffer from chronic pain, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine. That is more than those suffering from diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined.
Little wonder that pain — and specifically the drugs to manage it — is a big business, totaling $24 billion in the U.S. alone, according to an analysis by Mizuho Securities. With that kind of money at stake, and with demand for the drugs so high, the temptation for doctors to overprescribe them can be great.
"I think it has become a problem in this country," said Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical director at Consumer Reports. "It's come to a point where sometimes we're doing more harm than good."
Los Angeles physician Lisa Tseng took that to a deadly extreme. In 2015, she became the first doctor in the United States convicted of murder for recklessly overprescribing drugs. As told on the latest episode of CNBC's "American Greed," her clinic handed out some 27,000 prescriptions in just three years. At least 13 patients died in her care.
But even legitimate, well-intentioned doctors can fall into the overprescription trap. A study last year by the National Safety Council found 99 percent of the doctors surveyed were prescribing highly addictive opioids for longer than the three-day period recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Most doctors don't want to see anyone suffer, so it is our instinct to really try to help people," Avitzur said. "At the same time, we're very busy nowadays in practices, and patients don't get the same face-to-face time that perhaps they did 10, 20 years ago. And so in a way it's easier to write a prescription than to have to go into a lengthy discussion about why I'm not going to write you a prescription."
How can you tell if your doctor is an over-prescriber? Avitzur offers some tips on how to recognize and address the problem.