Debating the uses and abuses of prescription painkillers — two things about which little general agreement exists — Eve Marson’s somewhat glibly titled but otherwise sober, engrossing “Dr. Feelgood” examines the case of William Hurwitz, a Virginian physician whose special focus on patients with chronic pain wound up getting him scammed by addicts, and convicted on numerous counts of “large-scale drug trafficking.” Whether he actually committed a crime or just exhibited extraordinarily poor judgement in the service of “helping people” is something most viewers will still be puzzling out for themselves afterward. The subject’s relatability will make this an easy sell, especially to appropriate broadcasters.
Medical science has managed many remarkable achievements, but as is noted early on here, there are still no means of accurately measuring how much pain a patient is in. Particularly for those with a chronic pain condition (as opposed to, say, a severed arm), they simply have to be taken at their word. But they often aren’t, getting a tacit “It’s all in your head” response. Most doctors are unwilling to prescribe lengthy or high-dosage opioid treatments for fear of creating addicts, let alone the many legal consequences of “overprescribing.”
Hurwitz, a Bostonite from a “liberal Jewish household” who returned home to specialize in such patients after first practicing medicine for the Peace Corps overseas, seems so blandly idealistic in his adherence to the Hippocratic Oath that his ex-wife considers him a “fool.” But he believed that the excessive caution applied by most medical professionals, and the regulatory strictures imposed by decades of anti-drug sentiments, were equally mistaken when denying relief to those with chronic pain conditions (often tied to nerve damage, and difficult to diagnostically assess).
People like neurological pain victim Molly Shaw and Bret McCarter (suffering spinal damage after falling off a roof) say they “got their lives back” once Hurwitz was willing to prescribe them painkiller doses few others would hazard. Because they got onto those doses gradually, they were not at risk of overdose, or even “getting high.” But later it looked a whole lot to the Feds that Hurwitz was simply enabling addicts with “astounding quantities” of prescription medication. Nor did it help that McCarter (a notably unappealing, unrepentant Judas-like figure here) and others among a minority of “bad” patients did become addicts, then used the seemingly endless prescriptions Hurwitz inexplicably kept issuing them to sell OxyContin on the street as a wave of “hillbilly heroin”-related crime launched around the turn of the millennium. A “60 Minutes” piece on the doc (and the general painkiller controversy) made his practice drastically expand, even as it also made him an object of even greater interest to police, FBI and DEA investigators.
His actual legal fate would encompass a retrial and several years in prison. But Hurwitz still insists “I feel like I’ve led a moral life and done good in the world.” (Certainly his motive was not profit — he couldn’t afford bail when arrested.) Called variably a savior and a demon by those affected by his prescription pad, he’s less hyperbolically labeled as profoundly naive by his closest colleagues. While punishing physicians for overprescribing (and related deaths) continues, it is noted that there is scant more medical consensus on the virtues and hazards of prescribing painkillers than 20 years ago.
Marson’s lively narrative employs a lot of diverse voices as well as a surprising amount of archival footage in telling a story that’s ethically complex yet easy to follow. All tech and design contributions are nicely turned.