The end of the “Doctor Shopping” era?

February 29, 2016

When the term “doctor shopping” was first coined, it referred to physicians much like Dr. Lisa Tseng—medical professionals who would overprescribe painkillers in dangerous quantities. The number of accidental overdoses of prescription pills accounts for nearly 30,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, and at least three of those people were under Tseng’s care when they died. The doctor was brought to book on a charge of second-degree murder as well as over a dozen illegal prescribing counts. The verdict: guilty. And the sentence of 30 years sent shockwaves through the medical establishment and the legal community. Here are the particulars of the case—as well as what this verdict means for the future.

Why the case is relevant

This may not have been the first time a doctor has been brought to trial under charges of overprescribing pain medication. What makes this case different, however, is that Tseng was found guilty of second-degree murder. That marks the first time in U.S. history that a doctor has been convicted of such a charge.

Striking a conciliatory tone didn’t help the doctor’s cause

During sentencing, Tseng addressed the courtroom, saying to the victim’s families, in part, “I’m really very sorry… may God bless all of you and grant comfort to all who have been affected by my actions. “ However, the mea culpa didn’t sway Superior Court Judge George C. Lomeli, who regarded Tseng as blaming anyone and everyone, including patients and other doctors, for her crimes. The verdict and the judge’s sentencing might just signal that doctors are no longer given the benefit of the doubt in the U.S. legal system.

Dr. Tseng isn’t alone

As mentioned above, this isn’t the first time a doctor has been charged with murder. What’s different now is that there is a groundswell of public support for legal action against doctors who overprescribe. In September 2015, for example, a Florida doctor was acquitted of first-degree murder under similar circumstances to those of Tseng.

The verdict for medicine in America

Many primary care physicians followed Tseng’s trial closely. Some, like Dr. Peter Staats, the head of the ASIPP (American Society of International Pain Physicians feels that “murder” is a harsh term to apply to a doctor. However, he also maintained that physicians who overprescribe shouldn’t be considered doctors at all, and a rigorous medical board, as opposed to legal authorities, should determine their fate. What do you think.