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A small number of doctors are linked to a large percentage of prescription drug-related deaths in Southern California, according to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times.

The newspaper found that in almost half of the 3,733 deaths from prescription drugs in four Southern California counties, those who died had a doctor’s prescription for at least one drug that caused or contributed to the death. In many cases, deaths were caused by use of multiple drugs, sometimes prescribed by more than one doctor. In some cases, prescription drugs were mixed with alcohol or illicit drugs.

The investigation found 71 doctors, or 0.1 percent of all practicing physicians in the four counties, wrote prescriptions for drugs that caused or contributed to 298 deaths. Each of those doctors prescribed drugs to three or more patients who died, the newspaper found. Four of the doctors had 10 or more patients who died from prescription drug overdoses.

Most of the 71 doctors linked with three or more fatal overdoses were pain specialists, general practitioners or psychiatrists. They tended to work alone, without the scrutiny of peers. Four have been convicted of drug offenses in connection with the prescriptions they wrote; a fifth is awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder in the overdose deaths of three patients, the article notes.

The other doctors have not faced criminal prosecution related to their practice of medicine. Most have clean records with the Medical Board of California, which licenses and oversees doctors.

Experts said the findings should lead to closer scrutiny of physicians’ prescribing practices. R. Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said, “Do I think this has the potential to change the game in the way it’s being looked at and being addressed, both at the state and federal level? Yes, I do.”

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