The term doctor shopping may be familiar to you. Doctor shopping is not the process of finding a new medical provider. It is an intentional process that occurs when someone visits multiple providers to obtain prescriptions for drugs. Sadly, doctor shopping is a common, dangerous, and illegal practice.
What is Doctor Shopping?
Doctor shopping is the practice of visiting more than one doctor to get prescriptions for specific drugs. Doctor shopping often occurs when someone with a substance use disorder looks for ways to obtain multiple prescriptions for drugs they can use, distribute or sell. Individuals who are most likely to engage in doctor shopping are seeking opioid, opiate, and benzodiazepine drugs, although the practice is not restricted to these substances.
Is Doctor Shopping Common?
There is no “specific type” of person who doctor shops. It can occur across all demographics. Statistics suggest doctor shopping is common, although reliable data is challenging to find. Available reports suggest the prevalence rates of doctor shopping range from 6% to 56%. There are many reasons for the wide-ranging variance, including research methodology, doctor reporting, the “definition” of doctor shopping for research purposes, and the patient sample.
Again, there is no single definition or description for someone who engages in doctor shopping. The National Institute on Drug Abuse study suggests that doctor shoppers tend to be younger adults ranging in age from 18 to 44 years of age. They are also typically white males who are college educated.
Why Do People Doctor Shop?
Doctor shopping occurs for a variety of reasons. A report released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) identified the most common doctor shoppers as those seeking opioids and other narcotics. A study from 2010 indicated opioids was among the commonly prescribed drugs involved in doctor shopping situations at 12.8% of cases. Benzodiazepines were the next most frequent at 4.2%, followed by stimulants at 1.4% of cases.
People often begin doctor shopping for specific reasons. Two of the most common include:
- They have developed a dependency on the effects of a controlled substance (a narcotic drug) and need to find ways to obtain more than what their primary care provider has prescribed to maintain their addiction. It is likely they first used the drug for legitimate reasons, but now dependence or addiction has developed, and their prescription has run out. After developing a substance use disorder, someone with an addiction may begin doctor shopping to ensure they have enough of a particular drug to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
- A second reason people begin doctor shopping is that they are looking for drugs to sell. Illicit demand for prescription drugs, especially certain opioids, is exceptionally high. Dealers or individuals who want to make money selling drugs to others may turn to doctor shopping as a way to gain “legal” access to drugs that they, in turn, sell to others.
What Are Common Types of Drugs Doctor Shoppers Usually Seek?
There are three classifications of drugs that doctor shoppers generally seek the most. These are:
Opioids are a class of drugs that include medications prescribed by medical providers to manage pain and illicit substances such as heroin. Common examples of opioids include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, and fentanyl. Opioids are powerful, highly addictive drugs. Their abuse can lead to harmful and sometimes deadly side effects. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate the number of drug overdose deaths related to opioids increased by 5% between 2018 and 2019. More than 70% of overdose deaths in 2019 involved an opioid drug.
Stimulants are drugs that “speed up” activities in the body. Stimulant drugs produce energizing and euphoric effects. Stimulant medications are found in both legal and illicit forms. Examples of commonly abused illicit (illegal) stimulants include methamphetamine and cocaine. Prescription stimulants that are frequently abused include drugs used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta.
Recent studies suggest prescription stimulant abuse rates have increased in recent years. Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that approximately 20% of high school students report using a prescription stimulant without a valid prescription. Research from the National Institutes of Health shows over 2% of adults misused prescription stimulations.
Central nervous system depressants
Central nervous system (CNS) depressants are drugs used to treat anxiety, insomnia, seizure disorders, and panic attacks. CNS depressants slow activity in your central nervous system, causing feelings of calm and relaxation. Examples of CNS depressants include benzodiazepines, sedative-hypnotics, and barbiturates. Drugs that fall within these categories are many familiar substances such as Valium, Xanax, Ambien, and Luminol.
Misuse and abuse of CNS depressants can lead to dependency, addiction, and possible overdose. Recent statistics from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggest more than 2% of the U.S population have misused prescription depressants in the past year.
Are There Harmful Effects of Doctor Shopping?
Doctor shopping is a dangerous practice. Unfortunately, many of the risks and dangers associated with doctor shopping are largely ignored by those who do it.
Developing or worsening substance use disorders
Someone who misuses or abuses substances can develop a tolerance to the substance they use. Dependence and addiction often follow tolerance. In 2022, more than 20 million adults in America reported having a substance use disorder in the past year. Ongoing misuse of opioids, benzodiazepines, and sedatives can lead to significant physical and psychological challenges that require comprehensive treatment at a drug and alcohol treatment program like The Hills.
An overdose occurs when too much of a drug enters the body. This can occur due to the use of larger than prescribed doses or because too much of a substance remains in the system before another dose is taken. When this happens, it becomes difficult (sometimes impossible) for the body to process substances leading to central nervous system depression and elevated heart rate and breathing. Excess levels of various substances in the body can lead to medical emergencies or death.
When someone doctor shops, their providers are unaware of other prescriptions they may have received for a particular substance. When medical providers prescribe medications with a potential for addiction, they do so based on need and only after completing a comprehensive medical assessment of their patient. After a thorough evaluation, dosing recommendations are developed.
When someone doctor shops, each doctor is unaware of what the other doctors prescribe. As a result, someone who doctor shops may receive prescriptions for medications that should not be combined or receive multiple prescriptions for the same drugs, increasing addiction and overdose risk. Both of these circumstances can lead to short and long-term medical consequences.
New or worsening mental health challenges
Similar to medical emergencies, substance misuse can lead to new or worsening mental health effects. Many prescription drugs can cause various mental health side effects. Also, substance use disorders can worsen pre-existing mental health conditions.
Severe legal consequences
Doctor shopping is illegal. Although some people who doctor shop understand what they are doing is not ok, they may not realize that doctor shopping is a violation of federal laws. The specific laws pertaining to doctor shopping vary by state; however, most are based to some degree on the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act of 1932 and the Uniform Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Both acts mention that it is illegal for anyone to “obtain or attempt to obtain a narcotic drug by deceit, misrepresentation, fraud, or concealment of facts.”
Individual states have also enacted state-specific laws regarding doctor shopping. Some states specify that information patients provide to their doctor when doctor shopping is not protected under the doctor-patient privilege. This means that any communications used to falsely obtain a prescription can be used as evidence in court.
Because doctor shopping violates federal law, someone caught doing so will be charged with a felony. The consequences of doctor shopping can include fines in the thousands of dollars and/or prison time. In addition, the crime will become part of your permanent criminal record which could have other lifelong implications, including challenges obtaining or maintaining employment.
It is also crucial to mention that pharmacies also participate in regulatory practices related to specific prescriptions. When someone goes to a pharmacy, even multiple pharmacies, the pharmacist can pull up a history of controlled substance refills related to the individual. They can learn whether a controlled substance prescription has been filled by multiple providers or at numerous pharmacies. In some states, they are obligated to report this information to law enforcement and physicians.
Get Help for Substance Abuse at The Hills
If you or a loved one are currently engaging in doctor shopping, it is crucial to seek help for the underlying condition that made doctor shopping necessary. If you are someone who doctor shops for prescriptions, it is possible addiction is to blame. Without comprehensive treatment, addiction does not typically resolve independently. Many of the substances people doctor shop for can be dangerous, even fatal, to quit cold turkey. Opioids and benzodiazepines produce severe and overwhelming withdrawal symptoms when one tries to reduce or stop taking them. While the severity and intensity of withdrawal symptoms vary, they can occur even with a mild addiction.
Studies show the safest and most effective way to achieve sobriety from drug and alcohol addiction is at an addiction treatment center like The Hills in Los Angeles. Our team of experienced, professional medical and mental health providers will work with you to develop a treatment plan that addresses your physical, emotional and spiritual needs as you seek sobriety. To learn more about how addiction treatment at The Hills can help you overcome drug addiction and stop doctor shopping, contact us today for more information about our luxury Los Angeles rehab.