16 Feb 2016

GP over-prescribed to drug addicts

9:57 am on 16 February 2016

Doctors are defending the controls around potent medicines, after a Hamilton GP was suspended for prescribing to drug addicts.

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Photo: 123rf.com

The Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal suspended Gregory Thorne after he admitted that he knew his patients were probably selling on some of their drugs.

A pharmacist raised the alarm on his offending, which spanned two years till 2013, having noticed a worrying pattern of heavy prescribing of opiates like Clonazepam, morphine sulphate and Oxycontin.

Oxycontin, sometimes called Oxycodone and nicknamed 'hillbilly heroin' for its global record of creating addicts, is twice as potent as morphine.

Dr Thorne told the Tribunal he was trying to help poor people but identified with them too much, and lost his moral compass.

Medical Council investigators looked into the Ministry of Health's Medicine Control files and found that in one case, Dr Thorne prescribed a patient 250 tablets of Clonazepam in one month.

In another case, the part-time GP twice prescribed dangerous drug combinations to a patient during a period when they overdosed twice, ending up in hospital.

A total of 17 patients were either over-prescribed powerful drugs, or got medical certificates Dr Thorne shouldn't have issued, in some cases to claim benefits.

Dr Thorne told the Tribunal he wanted to practice medicine again and sanctions against him will be lifted in May.

Auckland GP Jan White, who is on the Medical Association's GP Council, said Dr Thorne's case was unusual and controls around prescribing were strong enough.

"Most reasonable GPs would have very strict controls themselves," she said.

Dr White added the strictest protocols were in practices that had been accredited under a medical programme called Cornerstone, with the aim was to eventually get all doctors in the country accredited that way.

Under Cornerstone, "we have very stringent guidelines and controls ... audits are conducted regularly and it would be very difficult in such a practice to have anything like this happen".

Another safety measure was the restricted persons list put out by Medicines Control, which showed up such things as a patient getting too many drugs from a single GP, those who looked like they might sell their medicine, or shopped around GPs for drugs.

National Addiction Centre director Doug Sellman said the pressure from addicts on GPs could be intense.

"This particular doctor was at one of those extremes, a laissez-faire, reckless prescribing," he said.

"It often is with people who are coming under the pressure of desperate patients, through their craving, and sometimes intimidation and often these doctors are in practices working by themselves."

Dr Sellman said some doctors became known as soft touches for over-prescribing, but the other damaging extreme was the doctor who disliked addicts and under-prescribed.

He said the tribunal allowing Dr Gregory to practice again was fair and it recognised he didn't do it for money.