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Coroner documents provide details in prescription drug overdose coverage

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Scott Glover and Lisa Girion of the Los Angeles Times launched an occasional series about prescription drug overdoses with a look at overdoses of drugs prescribed by doctors. Their story says, “In nearly half of the accidental deaths from prescription drugs in four Southern California counties, the deceased had a doctor’s prescription for at least one drug that caused or contributed to the death.” They found some doctors had prescribed medications in multiple overdose cases.

Scott and Lisa relied on coroners’ data for their story because they were blocked from accessing information such as data from the California Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, Lisa says. They learned that, in addition to standard autopsy reports that supply cause of death and toxicology reports, coroners’ offices also have medication inventory sheets. Lisa says they’re property logs of prescription bottles collected at the scene of death. They include details like pill counts and prescribers.

But so many details meant a lot of sifting, she says. “With each level of information, the data points multiply,” she says.

And like most data, there was no uniform method, Lisa says. Only four counties collected information in a useful way. And each of those counties used different formats. Doctors’ names were recorded differently. Each investigator at each coroner’s office entered information differently. Drug names varied. Terminology terms were inconsistent with some offices using “manner of death” versus “mode of death.”

Although the offices cooperated in providing the information, the Orange County coroner’s office redacted some information – which meant it took longer to get. Other offices with small staffs could only provide data in small batches. “They have rules like you can only get three reports per week because they couldn’t handle the workloads,” Lisa says.

The whole process took two years, she says.

Lisa suggest other reporters attack the story one county at a time. She also suggests keeping a logbook or diary of decisions made and data collected.

“The data folks kept track, but I would have liked to keep a copy as well,” she says. “From an efficiency prospective, it would have been a good idea to have a diary.”

In Basics, Featured, Health care, Investigation.

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