I grew up in 1970s Eugene, Oregon, where we had one doctor for my part of town: Dr. Byerly. He was the man behind the kind, gentle, trusted hand that warmed the stethoscope before he placed it on my tiny chest. "Breathe," he'd say. Things have become more complicated since then, when medicine was personal and a relationship with the family doctor was not the slippery gray ethics slope it can easily be today. Now, I am a witness to the pain and suffering generated by doctors who practice in this gray zone.
I'm frustrated that it takes a high-profile, headline-making event like the death of Michael Jackson to get us to examine how accountable the medical profession is for recognizing the health risks associated with treating people who struggle with addition. I'm further frustrated that the King of Pop's story is being perceived as unique, yet it's being repeated daily in living rooms across this nation, with real loved ones left behind crying real tears and sharing similar bewilderment that this happened on the watch of a "real doctor." But as I've learned as a person in recovery from drug addiction, frustration is an emotion we cannot afford. It must be turned into hope.
If a physician does not take a detailed addiction history from any patient to whom he prescribes a drug like Xanax, Valium or Oxycontin, he is abandoning his Hippocratic Oath and essentially becoming a dealer. When a patient dies in this gray area of care, his death should be prosecuted accordingly. These prescriptions have enormous medical value for a variety of ailments, but without proper screening of patients, they are as deadly as cyanide and as disruptive as a loaded gun on a playground.
In some cases, a physician genuinely may not have known what role he played in putting a patient at risk and would react with concern. Other physicians have actually said it was the patient's job to act responsibly—demonstrating a profound and gross misunderstanding of the disease of addiction, our country's third-leading killer.* Still other physicians I have seen are almost sociopathic in their disinterest and seem to have no conscience about their patients or their families after they've been paid for an office visit.
As extraordinary as Michael Jackson's life story was, the story of his death is shockingly ordinary.
Learn the warning signs of prescription drug addiction