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Other team physicians who, the lawsuit says, repeatedly prescribed narcotics to Boogaard — including Burns, Dr. Joel Boyd and Dr. Daniel Peterson — declined to comment or did not respond to requests for interviews. “I don’t want to talk,” said Burns, who is also a team doctor for the Minnesota Vikings, Timberwolves and the Lynx. The Minnesota Wild also declined to comment.
Four years later, it’s not clear if team doctors shared a single medical record, which might have told them if Boogaard was “doctor shopping” for pills. But until recently, there was no way for most physicians to track that kind of practice.
That changed in 2010, when Minnesota created a Prescription Monitoring Program to track the use of controlled substances. Doctors and pharmacists can use it to find out if patients have filled similar prescriptions from other medical professionals. But it’s voluntary, and not all doctors use it.
“You’ve got to remember that these [patients] are very skillful at telling stories,” said Thorson, of the MMA. Physicians want to help patients who genuinely are in pain, “so we’re easily conned,” he said.
Decades ago, it was rare for doctors to prescribe such powerful narcotics, said Dr. Gavin Bart, an addiction specialist at Hennepin County Medical Center. “You [would] never give an opiate to treat pain unless people have cancer.”
But by the 1990s, that changed. Experts and drug companies started encouraging doctors to treat pain more aggressively. And patients started to expect it.
Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer of the Hazelden Foundation, likes to say that as a kid, he would have been “lucky to get an aspirin” for a sprained ankle. Today, a teenager hurts his elbow and gets 30 pills of Vicodin.
As a professional athlete, Boogaard “was able to get them with remarkable ease,” he said. But “the truth is, almost anybody can.”
Now, doctors are trying to put on the brakes. The Minnesota Medical Association has formed a task force to try to curb the use of the drugs.
And HealthPartners has started a campaign to rein in prescriptions one department at a time, Courneya said.
In a pilot study, the group’s hand surgeons cut the use of narcotics by 30 percent after they crafted new guidelines to use them more sparingly, according to HealthPartners. Now other departments are doing the same. “This has reached a tipping point,” said Courneya.
One big challenge, he said, is to figure out ways to shift chronic-pain patients to a “lower, safer dose,” or wean them off completely.
At the NHL, meanwhile, there are signs the Boogaard tragedy may be having an effect. The new players’ contract, signed in January, requires each team for the first time to designate one person responsible for monitoring the prescription drugs given to players.
“If we’re honest with ourselves, this is one situation where there’s enough responsibility and [blame] to go around,” said Courneya. “Most physicians and most patients are really just trying to do the right thing. And in this case, I think we wandered down a very dangerous path without realizing it. Now we have to find a way out.”
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