A new state online database of patient prescription drug information will help authorities identify traffickers and people who "doctor shop" for medications, state officials say.
Pharmacists have sent patient prescription information to the state since 1982 under Texas' drug monitoring program, but that system was paper-based and slow.
The new system is a "substantial upgrade" because it allows instant access to information that practitioners and pharmacists need to identify potential drug abusers before they fraudulently receive medications, the Texas Department of Public Safety says.
Prescription drugs that are reported include anti-anxiety medications, painkillers and cough syrup with codeine.
DPS officials say the database is secure and, beginning this month, available to registered users who provide licensing information, including law enforcers, , the officials said.
"Law enforcement access to this information is also crucial to investigating those individuals or organizations engaged in the trafficking of prescription drugs," DPS Director Steven McGraw said in a statement. "This new tool will allow a proactive approach to prevention, assist with criminal investigations, provide historical reporting and identify trends."
In Tarrant County, drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental deaths for people ages 30 to 59, said Deborah Krauser, program director for the Fort Worth Emergency Services Collaborative. In 2011, there were 167 such deaths.
Preventing overdoses is among the goals of the Fort Worth Safe Communities Coalition.
Dr. Terence McCarthy, medical director of the collaborative, called the online database a "powerful tool." Differentiating between patients with real pain and those with addictions is challenging for physicians without knowing their prescription histories.
McCarthy, also a staff physician in the emergency department at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, said the point of determining whether people have an addiction isn't just to deny them drugs, but also to help them get treatment for their dependency.
If a doctor shows a patient evidence that he or she has filled 28 prescriptions from 10 different doctors since January, the patient can't really protest, he said.
"Often they are more receptive than you would think when you are frank and upfront with them about your concerns," he said.
Some groups have raised concerns about the program, calling for privacy protections and transparency. Dotty Griffith, public education director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in an e-mail that government databases often contain errors.
The public must "have confidence that their private prescription information is not shared inappropriately or subjected to suspicionless fishing expeditions by law enforcement," she wrote. "Texans should have a right to find out if their personal records are accessed, to review their records and petition to correct errors."
DPS started a pilot program for the system, known as Prescription Access in Texas, in August 2011. This week, access to the database was granted to practitioners, pharmacists and law enforcement officials. Practitioners include physicians, dentists, veterinarians, podiatrists, advanced practice nurses and physician assistants.
The law requires pharmacists to report prescription data within seven days, and information is stored in the database for 12 months, according to the state.
The program would also help identify physicians who illicitly prescribe drugs, DPS said.