"It's evil." Purdue Pharma pushed opioids to patients in side-deal with medical records startup

The startup Practice Fusion is accused of enabling painkiller addiction through a kickback scheme.

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Silicon Valley once adored Practice Fusion, a medical startup based in San Francisco. Over the years, the company attracted some $150 million from venture capitalists and was seen as a modern take on medicine and healthcare in the United States. Now the startup is under heavy scrutiny for its alleged involvement in actively pushing addictive painkillers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Bloomberg reports that the DOJ accused Practice Fusion of striking a deal with a major opioid manufacturer to increase prescriptions for opioid painkillers. A separate Reuters report says the drugmaker is likely Purdue Pharma — the company behind OxyContin — which has become the poster-child for abusive and deadly practices around opioid prescriptions. Practice Fusion has admitted to the opioid deal and has been fined $145 million, Bloomberg noted.

Enabling the crisis — With the help of Practice Fusion, doctors could rely on an electronic medical record system. The startup didn't charge for this technology but instead created revenue through advertising. When using the system to check patients' medical records, doctors were guided to prescribe addictive painkillers as part of a treatment plan. This subtle and seemingly innocuous workflow made it easy for Practice Fusion to tilt the results towards the products of its pharma partners and was used by thousands of doctors, according to Bloomberg.

What the DOJ says — The department claims that Practice Fusion struck at least 14 agreements with pharma companies from 2013 to 2017. As it stands, opioid addiction has claimed the lives of thousands of Americans, especially in rural parts of the country.

It was bound to happen — Onlookers have condemned the system upheld by Practice Fusion, including medical experts. Dermatologist Jamie Weisman told Bloomberg, "It's evil. There's really no other word for it."

But she added that it was eventually going to happen. "If you want to model electronic health records as a for-profit system and not regulate them as such and force doctors to be on them," Weisman warned, "it's almost inevitable that they're going to be manipulated."