Wisconsin doctors and pharmacists are collecting data on patients who are prescribed painkillers as part of the state's new Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.
The drug registry, which is overseen by the Department of Safety and Professional Services, will officially come on line on June 1, allowing those health care professionals to see the narcotics their peers are dispensing.
Pain medication represents roughly 20 percent of all prescriptions dispensed in Wisconsin. The state will become the 45th in the country with an active drug monitoring system.
"This will really dramatically improve our ability to provide safe care for the patients," said Dr. Tom Meyer, an emergency room physician at UW Health. "The patients right now can go to seven or eight clinics, and as long as a clinic's records aren't connected, they could get prescriptions in every one. Now, a patient comes in with a pain issue, I look up in the registry, I can see they've got five or six prescriptions already. I can say, 'You should probably use those before you get some more.'"
Meyer spotted the problem back in 2006, when some patients were averaging 19 visits to the emergency room. He worked with his colleagues to craft a letter to send to patients and their primary-care physicians that the ER would treat acute pain, but no longer fill chronic pain prescriptions. He said the next year, that group of patients averaged only two visits to the emergency room.
He urged his colleagues at Meriter and St. Mary’s to adopt a similar strategy to dealing with the potential prescription drug abuse. The result is that all of Madison's emergency rooms send the same material to patients.
"They would say, 'Oh, I lost my prescription.' 'The dog ate it' or 'It went down the toilet,'" Meyer said. "We were seeing people coming in repeatedly with vague complaints. We were seeing overdoses of drugs and we felt this was dangerous."
In Reedsburg, Wis., a middle school student and a police chief also saw the problem in their community. Jordyn Schara was initially concerned about the environmental impact of improperly discarded prescription medication, while Chief Timothy Becker worried about painkillers ending up in the hands of people who shouldn't have them.
Schara launched Wisconsin Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal, also called P2 D2, and Becker offered the police department lobby as a location for the drop box where residents could safely and anonymously leave unneeded medication. Four years later, Reedsburg residents drop off roughly 150 pounds of pills every two weeks.
"Even in this day and age, not enough people are aware of the problems that face them when it comes to prescription drug abuse and the effects it can have on them," Schara said. "I don't think people understand how dangerous these can be. You can die."
Saturday marks the fifth annual National Prescription Take Back Day, when police agencies across the nation -- including in Dane County -- will offer drop boxes for people to bring in unwanted prescription medication.
For more information on area drop boxes, visit the Safer Community website.
More on the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program is also online.