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Prominent Utah pain doc no longer under scrutiny for patient deaths
Health » Investigation dropped, but questions remain on the safety of opioid painkillers.

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The 75-year-old, a former airline mechanic, shot himself in the garage of his Sandy home. Already dealing with multiple health problems, he had just been diagnosed with stomach cancer, said his daughter, Lynette Dickerson.

"I don’t think he saw a reason to keep going. He left a note apologizing but saying that he knew we understood," she said. "We had seen him horribly suffer for over 10 years and we suffered right along with him. It was awful. But we weren’t upset with him, just upset with the situation, that more couldn’t be done to help him."

At a glance

Fatal overdoses are slowly rising again

Poisoning is the No. 1 cause of injury-related death in Utah, driven primarily by fatal prescription overdoses. The problem was first reported by the state’s medical examiner in 2004, after which drug deaths continued to soar. Health officials credit an awareness campaign for a decline in deaths in 2008. But funding ran out and drug deaths have started to inch up again.

2006 » 308

2007 » 371

2008 » 321

2009 » 306

2010 » 278

2011 » 306

2012 » 323

Source: Utah Department of Health

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Dickerson started seeing Webster in 1998 following a series of surgeries that failed to alleviate his back pain and neuropathy, his daughter said. "My mom said he was seeing all kinds of doctors who disregarded his pain. They didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t fitting into a diagnostic box."

The medications prescribed by Webster and his team at Lifetree initially controlled his pain, Lynette Dickerson said. But toward the end of his life, nothing worked, not the half-dozen medicines he was on, including oxycodone and a morphine pump, nor alternative remedies, such as acupuncture, she said.

If Dickerson illustrates the plight of patients in chronic pain, his story also shows what researchers are realizing: that narcotic painkillers are dangerous and insufficient.

There’s some evidence they make pain worse.

Such treatments should be used selectively, with great caution and at low doses, said Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.

Kolodny doesn’t buy a "phony narrative" about prosecutorial overreach.

"The issue isn’t that the DEA is going after doctors; it’s that the medical community is realizing that treating patients in chronic pain with high doses of narcotics isn’t a good idea," he said.

Until drug manufacturers develop safer medicines, however, patients are left wanting.

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"My dad said that if the meds weren’t alleviating his pain and would interfere with what little quality of life he had left, he didn’t want them," Lynette Dickerson said. "But I wish they could have given him more. I didn’t understand what there was to lose. Pain is subjective; you can’t dictate how much pain a person is in or how much pain medication they need."


Twitter: @KStewart4Trib

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