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Unbalanced Coverage of Pain Doctor’s Successful Appeal
August 23, 2006
Maia Szalavitz
Associated Press account ignores support for doctor in medical community, national debate on pain treatment; story not just about drug trafficking

Here’s a glaring example of unbalanced coverage of chronic pain that appeared in dozens of papers across the country this morning in an Associated Press (AP) account of the successful appeal of a prominent physician’s conviction for conspiracy and drug trafficking. 

Amicus briefs favoring the doctor’s appeal had been filed by the specialty medical society that represents doctors who treat pain, by both the American and National Pain Foundations and by two of the country’s leading academic pain specialists. But if you read the AP version , you’d never know the case was anything more than our system granting some druggie doctor a legal point.

Here’s the AP’s lead:

"A doctor convicted of drug trafficking for prescribing massive doses of OxyContin and other painkillers to his patients will get a new trial.
William E. Hurwitz, a prominent pain specialist, was convicted in 2004 of 50 counts, including conspiracy and drug trafficking resulting in a patient's fatal overdose. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison."

And here’s how the Washington Post opened the same story:

"A federal appeals court threw out the conviction of William E. Hurwitz yesterday, granting the prominent former Northern Virginia pain-management doctor a new trial because jurors were not allowed to consider whether he prescribed drugs in good faith.

The decision again galvanized the national debate that the Hurwitz case had come to symbolize: whether fully licensed doctors prescribing legal medication to patients in chronic pain should be subject to prosecution if their patients abuse or sell the drugs. Patient advocate groups strongly supported Hurwitz and expressed concern that his conviction would have a chilling effect on pain doctors."

The AP story doesn’t mention the national debate or the amicus briefs by Hurwitz’ colleagues and patient advocates – who would ordinarily be expected to distance themselves from a doctor who’d become a dangerous drug dealer.

And, while it quotes one of the prosecutors whose arguments failed to carry the day with the higher court, it does not quote the attorney who won the Hurwitz appeal, nor does it contain comment from any of the pain advocates who have made the doctor’s case their cause, all of which are in the Post story.