ICBioethics Blog 

Unethically Prescribed Painkillers: What Will Be the Fallout of the Tseng Trial Underway?

Imagine that your precious son, away at college in his junior year, dies from an overdose of legal but unethically prescribed painkillers. While cleaning out his room, you find a bottle of prescription pain meds (200 of them, 30 milligram dosage) . . . . This is the tragedy that the parents of Joey Rovero endured in 2009. When they filed a complaint against Dr. Lisa Tseng, they found out that she was already under DEA investigation.

Finally, the trial – Tseng has been charged with second-degree murder in the deaths of three patients, ages 21, 25, and 28 – is now underway. This case certainly shines a spotlight on medical ethics, or the lack of them. The defense says the patients lied about their conditions to get the drugs; so based on a skewed view of patient autonomy, it’s not really the doctor’s fault, but the patients’ fault?! Another point made in her defense: the University of Michigan did not train her in pain management. If not trained in pain management, then why attempt to practice it—especially with such a dedicated focus and at such lethal levels? How about physicians’ duty to act in their patients’ best interests and their accountability to “do no harm”?

It is no secret that there are unethically prescribed painkillers circulating, but few cases come to trial. This case, however, is getting attention, and according to the Washington Post, the prosecutor claims that this evidence exists:

  • Drug Enforcement Administration states Tseng wrote more than 27,000 prescriptions over a three-year
    period, approximately 25 per day;
  • The physician was notified of her first patient death two years before the last patient overdosed from painkillers, yet she didn’t change her practices;
  • One overdose happened in the hallway to her clinic;
  • Tseng’s receptionist has sworn under oath that some patients were seen as little as 3 minutes prior to receiving painkiller prescriptions; and
  • Tseng admitted to her staff that their office was filled with drug addicts.

This situation should sadden and concern every medical professional. One bad apple may indeed affect everyone else. Some medical and legal experts are concerned that if Tseng is convicted, it could affect how legitimate doctors prescribe needed pain medication and change the way they interpret “do no harm.” And then who will ultimately suffer?

Mitch Gennuso