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People used a journalism database to search for drugs

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Journalism non-profit ProPublica built a website comparing doctors' prescribing habits. But about a quarter of its users appear to be looking for ways to find more narcotic painkillers, anti-anxiety medication, and amphetamines. In a letter from ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg posted online today, the organization says it discovered 25 percent of all page views for its Prescriber Checkup tool are related to widely abused prescription drugs. The acknowledgement illustrates just how dire the opioid epidemic has become, as public prescription data designed to hold doctors accountable may also be used to procure more painkillers.

Released in 2013, Prescriber Checkup catalogs the prescribing habits of hundreds of thousands of doctors in the US. Its focus was to provide reporters with data to find out which doctors were prescribing painkillers and antipsychotic drugs in dangerous quantities. It also details which doctors were writing prescriptions for brand-name drugs instead of cheaper alternatives. Prescriber Checkup since been adopted by medical plan administrators, doctors, law enforcement, and patients. That group apparently includes drug-seekers as well.

The tool could be used to find doctors who dole out painkillers more readily

"It’s not possible to draw definitive conclusions about the motives of these people. Some, no doubt, legitimately have chronic pain or anxiety and are simply looking for doctors who will help them," Engelberg writes of those searching Prescriber Checkup for narcotics information. "Still, it seems probable that some of the readers who visit Prescriber Checkup are looking for doctors who will prescribe narcotics and other powerful stimulants with few or no questions asked." He notes how Google Analytics data indicates people have found the tool after searching phrases like "doctors that will prescribe anything."

Prescriber Checkup will remain live, as ProPublica feels the benefits it provides journalists, medical professionals, and law enforcement is too great. "Doctors, the vast majority of whom want to do the right thing, have told us that this is the only place where they can measure their prescribing against colleagues in their specialty and state," Engelberg writes. The organization will however take steps to try and reduce misuse. Prescriber Checkup will now provide warnings on all pages related to narcotics. The page will also link whenever possible to from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on prescription drug use.

Update May 13th, 2:44PM ET: Clarified that Prescriber Checkup is not ProPublica's app designed to check which doctors have taken drug company money. That app is called Dollars for Docs.