WINCHESTER, Va. (WDVM) — “Doctor shopping” isn’t just an issue for physicians anymore. Health care providers across the industry are fighting to keep prescription pills in the hands–and paws–of those who really need them.
The practice of doctor shopping, seeing different doctors to get a preferred diagnosis or prescription, has long been a problem in the medical community. But in the context of the opioid crisis, it can have deadly effects.

“Deaths in 2019 have been less than in 2018,” said Valley Health physician Dr. Chris Turnbull. “But when you look at it across the board, we’re losing a vastly greater number of people to opioid abuse and overdose than we lost in Vietnam. So I mean it’s a huge number and it’s staggering.”

The medical system certainly plays a role in it.

“We have done a survey of 18-25 year olds here this past fall, and this is our second survey asking them where they get prescription meds that they plan to use and they cite doctors as a big source of that,” said Christa Shifflett, the Executive Director of the Warren County Community Health Coalition. Of the 1163 young adults surveyed, 25.2 percent responded that it was easy to get opiates from a doctor. All healthcare providers have a role to play in fighting the crisis, Shifflett says.

Health care providers have tried to stop doctor shopping by using prescription monitoring program, run by state health departments in order to keep track of who is prescribing what, and how frequently the prescriptions are being filled. Turnbull says he believes the monitoring programs have helped the overall efforts to curb the endemic.

But as the industry adapts, those abusing the drugs change too.

“Interestingly and also sadly is the practice now of going to vets,” Shifflett said. “When I talk to vets about it, they’re telling me about people intentionally injuring animals so that they can get pain pills.”

Vets are now keeping tabs on those prescriptions–with the same monitoring programs used for human patients.

Veterinarian Lauren Taylor of the Roseville Veterinary Clinic in Boyce, Va. says while she hasn’t personally seen pet owners she suspects of abusing their pet’s medications, she is aware of the potential for it. She adds that the Drug Enforcement Administration has placed strict guidelines for vets to ensure medications are being used appropriately.

“According to the DEA, all veterinarians are required to have a DEA license if they’re prescribing or handling controlled substances. And it’s pretty strict on record keeping and monitoring and inventory and that type of thing,” she said.

Vets have the option to write in-house prescriptions, but it requires the clinic to keep detailed records and enter them into the Commonwealth’s prescription monitoring program. Taylor’s clinic has a waiver for the requirement, but instead, she and the other vets send all prescriptions for more than seven days to an outside pharmacy, which then enters the prescriptions into the system.

“The pharmacists have the ability to keep an eye on that prescription monitoring program. So they can check whether multiple pharmacies are being used. Because we hand the script to the owner and through some very creative means that can be duplicated,” Taylor said. “Really we owe it to the client at the end of the day to make sure that those drugs are being used responsibly.”