NORMAN — The latest statistics suggest that 5 percent of Oklahomans over the age of 11 will abuse prescription painkillers this year. Several hundred of them will wind up dying of accidental overdoses. A few lucky ones will wind up in Hal Vorse’s addiction clinic.
Vorse, a former pediatrician, has dedicated the second half of his medical career to helping people wean themselves off highly addictive opiate painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone so they can go back to leading productive lives.
Vorse, 71, also serves as medical director of several residential treatment centers for drug and alcohol abusers in central Oklahoma, and presents addiction medicine seminars for students at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
In two recent interviews, Vorse urged state officials and medical professionals to take more aggressive action to deal with the growing problem of prescription drug abuse. The interviews have been edited and condensed.
Q: What do the statistics tell us about prescription drug abuse?
A: It has become one of the leading causes of death in people between 18 and 55. More people are dying from overdose deaths in Oklahoma than are being killed in motor vehicle accidents. The most recent data, from 2012, is over 800 overdose deaths in the state. About 80 percent of those are due to prescription drugs.
Q: With all of the attention this issue has gotten, why does the death toll keep rising?
A: I’m not sure the message has gotten out to all the doctors. I don’t know if they haven’t gotten the message or they don’t believe the message. But it’s amazing to me how many of them insist on writing for hydrocodone and oxycodone.
Q: Who are the victims?
A: It’s mostly people who are addicted. People who are predisposed to becoming addicted have access to the drugs through legitimate prescriptions. They will obtain these drugs initially legally, but eventually they will get multiple prescriptions from other doctors or they will start buying the drugs on the street.