Drug-induced fatalities are one of the only preventable causes of death that’s rising, rather than decreasing.
That’s because deaths from prescription narcotics have exploded, and as the panelists at a Health Journalism 2013 panel explained, there are ways to get past the talking points of this “epidemic” and decipher some of the causes for the public.
Lisa Girion, an investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times, went document diving to get to the root of the problem in a multi-part series she reported with Scott Glover called “Dying for Relief.”
TheTimes examined thousands of drug fatality reports from four counties between 2006 and 2011, obtained using the California Public Records Act. They found that 3,733 deaths involved prescription medications, and 1,762, or 47 percent, involved drugs that were prescribed.
They also found that a small number of doctors were disproportionately connected to those that died from prescription drugs.
The project took two years, and Girion explained that by requesting coroner’s records on accidental deaths, reporters could do similar projects about their own regions, though it can be complex, since the information’s usually not centrally located: “It’s literally a county-by-county battle.”
Giron recommended the National Survey on Drug Use and Health as a resource, which has national and state-level data on non-medical use of prescription drugs.
Another tool for looking at regional data is through Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, also called PDMPs.
Not all PDMPs are created equal, though, explained the director of the PDMP Center for Excellence at Brandeis University, John L. Eadie, whom moderator Charles Ornstein referred to as the “Sherpa” on this issue for many journalists.
PDMP data can be searched state by state here. Eadie recommends reporters inquire whether their state has laws requiring pharmacists to check identification of the person picking up the drugs, if their state’s PDMP is up to date, and if the state provides unsolicited PDMP data to medical providers, law enforcement, or other interested parties.
“This epidemic is increasing, and there is no question in our mind that we need to do more with PDMPs,” Eadie said.
When it comes to figuring out what story to tackle, The New York Times’ Alan Schwarz recommends reporters think about what gets them “fired up.”
Schwarz found himself angered by the “extraordinarily unnecessary academic pressure in high school,” that was leading to “kids literally snorting Adderall before the SATS,” Schwarz said. “I don’t think kids want to do this, they just feel like they have to.”
“The ones I sink my teeth into, and make a difference with, are the ones that piss me off,” Schwarz said.