As the world waits weeks for the final autopsy and toxicology reports on the tragic death of Whitney Houston, the 48 year old megastar, to surface, once again we the adoring public are faced with a celebrity death where the cloud of potential prescription overuse and doctor-enabling hangs over the tragic scene.
Preliminary reports that Houston was found in a hotel bathtub with the water overflowing over the sides do not suggest that drowning alone was the cause of death. Most disturbing is the notion that a mixture of alcohol and sedatives (specifically Xanax) may have rendered her unconscious and suppressed her breathing, a deadly combination.
We will have to wait for the final toxicology reports to know which drugs may have been in her system and at what amounts, and perhaps at that point investigators can begin to piece together the puzzle of where these medications came from as well as who prescribed them.
Prescriptions are the number one cause of fatal drug overdoses in the U.S. and abuse of prescription drugs, especially painkillers, has risen by over 400 percent in the past decade. Sedatives like Xanax, Valium, Ativan or painkillers such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet are similar in their effects, yet many patients have more than one in their medicine cabinets.
Physicians and pharmacies are responsible because they don’t keep sufficient track of the medications that are being prescribed. The Drug Enforcement Agency is weak when it comes to policing the problem and putting pressure on physicians to restrict their prescribing practices.
One shockingly relevant statistic: 70 percent of the narcotic painkillers in the U.S. are taken by people other than those they were prescribed for.
Celebrity deaths from Anna Nicole Smith to Michael Jackson have shown the public repeatedly the notorious role doctors play as part of the entourage that enable celebrities. We doctors are supposed to answer to a higher calling; we are supposed to be able to justify the use for each and every pill we prescribe. But all too often doctors are driven by a motivation other than altruism. Whether its greed or simply the seductiveness of starpower, doctors who can’t justify the prescriptions they write shouldn’t be practicing medicine.
Once again in the case of a celebrity death with the history of a drug problem hanging in the air, generations of fans find themselves waiting for the toxicology report. While we are waiting we can ask ourselves the following question – could prescription drugs, now be the second leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. after motor vehicle accidents, be dead center in the investigation of an untimely death without the doctors willing to prescribe them?
Dr. Marc Siegel is an associate professor of medicine and medical director of "Doctor Radio" at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a member of the Fox News Medical A Team and author of "The Inner Pulse; Unlocking the Secret Code of Sickness and Health."