Treating Pain Can Hurt Doctors

Dr. Joseph Talley talks with a patient on Friday, Jan. 4, 2002, at the Grover Medical Center, in Grover, North Carolina.
After working for 35 years as a country doctor in tiny Grover, North Carolina, Dr. Joseph Talley is bidding farewell to longtime patients. His practice was shut down, not by age or infirmity, but as CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports, by the state medical board for what it called "reckless prescribing" of narcotics.

"Grover has a population of 516," explains Dr. Andy Watry. "He was running this huge prescription operation that was drawing from lots of other states – I mean the nearest airport is Charlotte, 45 minutes away."

The state board of medicine suspended Talley's license this spring, also citing incomplete exams and sloppy records. Now the DEA is looking into about two-dozen overdose deaths, meaning he could eventually face murder charges.

The misuse of prescription pain-killers is a growing problem in our nation. Nine percent of Americans admit taking them illegally.

Talley admits he wrote a lot of prescriptions, but says that's because he was willing to do what other doctors were afraid to do: prescribe narcotics. And word spread that his unassuming office was a place to get them.

"When they would come here their only option left, that they could afford or would work, would be the opiods," Talley said.

Drugs that cancer patient Mary Dawson says gave her her life back.

"For the first time in years, I could ride a bike," she says. "I could actually hug my husband for a change, really hug him."

Dozens of doctors around the country have been charged with needlessly prescribing narcotics and making millions in the process, but even the state of North Carolina admits Talley was not prescribing for personal gain.

"I have no doubt in my mind that what I did was the right thing to do so I'm mad I will be referred to as a drug dealer and as one official referred to my clinic as a 'pill mill,'" says Talley.

Talley admits he made mistakes writing prescriptions for drugs addicts, as well as legitimate patients.

"The states have mandated us to give the medications to people in pain who need them, but do not – on penalty of your head – give them to somebody who's going to party with them or sell them," says Talley. "The state forgot to send along a manual to tell you which is which."

Talley defends himself pointing to what he says is a bigger problem: How does a doctor know who needs painkillers and in what dose? Pain remains largely a mystery. And pain management experts believe that many people are undertreated because of a lack of understanding.

"At many of the medical schools a decade ago, there would be as little as an hour in the entire four-year curriculum that was dedicated to the management of pain," says Dr. William Brose, a pain management expert.

Talley says his practice was his school. Years of treating people in pain convinced him narcotics work, but he also says he's living proof that the best intentions don't guarantee a healthy outcome.

When asked if he's worried that he could be charged criminally, Talley says, "of course I'm terrified of that possibility."

"Not only do I end my career in disgrace, but not even free."

Talley is waiting on a decision on the federal charges which could come later this year. In the meantime, he's put his medical tools away, but still hopes one day he'll be able to put his shattered reputation back together again.