Book review of Prescription for Pain by Philip Eil


In 2007, doctor Paul Volkman was charged with illegally distributing opioids via pain clinics in southern Ohio, leading to the overdose deaths of over a dozen patients. Journalist Philip Eil was drawn to the case because of a personal connection to the 60-year-old doctor: Volkman was a med school classmate of Eil’s father. Relying on over a decade of research, Prescription for Pain: How a Once-Promising Doctor Became the “Pill Mill Killer” retraces Volkman’s steps from the prestigious University of Chicago Medical School to the cash-only pain clinics in rural Ohio where Volkman liberally prescribed opiates and other controlled substances during the early-aughts opioid boom. “What on earth had happened in the thirty-some-odd years between these two facts?” Eil asks in his prologue. “I found the mystery irresistible.”

Eil leans into the contradictions of Volkman’s world, starting with his decline from promising honors student and med school grad to unhappy pediatrician facing malpractice lawsuits that pushed him to post-industrial Ohio, where he made a fresh start building a pain clinic empire at the expense of rural communities while arousing the suspicions of pharmacists and authorities alike. After Volkman’s eventual arrest, Eil dug into transcripts and sources from the court case, exploring the elements in Volkman’s nature and environment that led him to plead “not guilty” to the deaths of his patients.

Through his own interviews with Volkman and dozens of others who interacted with him or were impacted by his crimes, Eil depicts the doctor as a man forever convinced of both his superior intelligence and his underdog status, warping his perception of the world in order to depict himself as a persecuted victim. Highly financially motivated, largely absent in the lives of his young children and constantly on the road between his luxury home in Chicago and his clinics in Ohio, Volkman amassed a fortune prescribing wild volumes of medication indiscriminately: to those with legitimate pain as well as to longtime addicts to drug dealers. One former patient testified in court that he prescribed her 34 pills per day.

Eil provides context about malpractice law, drug regulations and the history of opioids in America. He also gives care and space to the lives and predicaments of various Volkman patients, devoting his afterword to the memory of the 13 people who died, as described by their families and communities. With Prescription for Pain, Eil joins the ranks of investigative journalists like Sam Quinones (Dreamland), Patrick Radden Keefe (Empire of Pain) and Beth Macy (Dopesick), adding a crucial piece of the puzzle to understanding an epidemic that continues to arrest the nation.

Read original article here.

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