ProPublica unintentionally helps drug abusers find physicians who freely prescribe opioids

ProPublica's database that details the prescribing habits of hundreds of thousands of physicians has led to several important findings and is a useful tool for physician comparison. However, it appears some readers are taking advantage of the database to find physicians likely to prescribe widely abused drugs.

Released in 2013, ProPublica's Prescriber Checkup has led to several important findings. For instance, the data showed some physicians are far more likely than others to prescribe brand-name drugs for which there are cheaper generic alternatives. In addition, patients use the database to vet their physicians' prescription drug choices, and physicians use it to see how their prescribing habits stack up to those of their peers, according to ProPublica.

Provider Checkup has also proven useful to law enforcement officials, who search the database for leads on fraud and pain medication trafficking.

Although the database provides valuable information to many, some readers may be using it to find physicians who freely prescribe commonly abused drugs such as opioids.

ProPublica's Google Analytics data revealed that as many as 25 percent of Prescriber Checkup's page views this year involve searches for amphetamines, narcotic painkillers and anti-anxiety medications. Many readers landed at the Prescriber Checkup after searching the web for "doctors who prescribe narcotics easily" or "doctors that will prescribe anything."

ProPublica wrote a "reporting recipe" to help journalists identify physicians who are among the top prescribers for narcotics. "The readership for this recipe far exceeds any reasonable estimate of local or regional journalists researching stories," according to ProPublica.

ProPublica noted that some readers are likely looking for physicians who will help them with chronic anxiety or pain, but it is also probable that some are looking for physicians who are likely to prescribe amphetamines and narcotics when there is no medically necessary reason to do so.

Although many groups benefit from the information on Provider Checkup, ProPublica realizes that it cannot ignore the fact that the database can be used for unintended purposes. To help with this issue, ProPublica said it is adding a warning to the pages of all narcotic drugs that reminds readers of the serious health risks associated with taking opioids. ProPublica will also link to the CDC's advice on the use of opioids.

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