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Doctors On Trial: Physicians Begin Facing Murder Charges For “Reckless Prescribing”

​​​Dr. Lisa Tseng is facing life in prison after three of her patients died from drug overdoses. Tseng has been charged with three counts of second-degree murder stemming from the deaths of twelve of her patients for prescribing medication to them. Tseng is also the first California physician to be charged in this way. Some of the patients are alleged to have travelled hundreds of miles to get prescriptions from Tseng, who has been referred to as a “pill mill.”

The trial may be a reaction to the 100 Americans who die from a drug overdose everyday. According to prosecutors, Tseng was not ignorant of what was happening and there is evidence that she was acting recklessly. Tseng was repeatedly notified by law enforcement that patients were overdosing and dying under her care. Both family members and prosecutors would like to make an example of Tseng, a warning to doctors not to be careless. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, Tseng wrote over 27,000 prescriptions in just 3 years, averaging 25 prescriptions per day. Prosecutors allege Tseng would give a patient a prescription after just 3 minutes, without a physical exam or checking for signs of addiction.

Tseng’s attorney contends Tseng is a Taiwanese immigrant with good intentions. The defense goes on to say that Tseng was trained in infectious disease, not in pain management. She was pulled into her husband’s practice and was simply in over her head and that Tseng did not act with callousness or indifference. Tseng’s attorney blamed the deaths on the patient’s addiction and mental health issues, not on the physician’s prescribing habits. According to the attorney, Tseng was one link in the chain, but was not responsible for the deaths.

While Tseng’s case is the first of it’s kind to go to trial in California, it is not the first to be investigated. In 2002, another doctor and two pharmacists were arrested for starting a “public health ​epidemic​ with attendant abuse, addiction, overdose and death.” Also in 2002, a Florida physician was convicted of manslaughter for the deaths of four patients related to Oxycontin overdose. Earlier this summer, Dr. Hatem Ataya, a physician in Michigan was arrested​ for similar charges to Tseng. Ataya is accused of badgering patients into getting refills for prescription narcotics, even if the patient was not experiencing pain. Ultimately, three of Ataya’s patients died from a narcotic overdose, leading to his arrest. In 2011, Dr. Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for giving Michael Jackson a fatal dose of propofol.

Many experts are worried about the effects a conviction could have on prescribing. The experts are concerned physicians will be afraid of criminal charges, leading to patients with legitimate pain to suffer without the medication. Currently, p​hysicians can face malpractice claim​s​ or even action against their medical license, but it is rare to hold a physician criminally liable. It is unclear if this will cause more criminal cases, given the severity of the evidence facing Tseng. Beyond the evidence already mentioned, Tseng’s receptionist will testify Tseng responded “They’re druggies, they can wait” when told about a full waiting room. One patient even overdosed in the hallway to Tseng’s clinic.

There’s no question that Dr. Lisa Tseng faces severe charges and consequences. If convicted, she faces life in prison. What affect a conviction could have on the prescribing habits of physicians remains to be seen, but given the high overdose rate perhaps a chilling effect is warranted. What is clear is that physicians have been sent a message, to be careful when prescribing addictive medicine.

Vaughn Bentley is the current Editor-In-Chief of the E-Pulse. He is pursuing a joint J.D. and LL.M. in Health Law at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. Mr. Bentley obtained a B.A. in Psychology from the State University of New York, College at Oswego in 2013. He is an active student board member of the Health Law Institute and has a passion for healthcare law. He would like to focus on administrative healthcare law or healthcare litigation after graduating in May of 2016.​​​