The LA Times ran a very interesting story a few days ago about deaths from overdose of narcotic pain medications. I strongly encourage readers of this blog to read the story, which discusses the issue from the perspectives of doctors, patients, and family members.
The story reports that a small number of Southern-California doctors wrote prescriptions that have killed a large number of patients. Over the past five years, 17% of the deaths related to prescription-drug overdose–298 people—were linked to only 0.1% of the area’s doctors. I was not surprised by the findings in the article, as I have read stories from other parts of the US reporting similar statistics.
There is a simple reason for the skewed numbers. Prescribing opioids for chronic pain is associated with risk of death by overdose. More and more doctors are avoiding that risk by refusing to treat chronic pain with opioid pain medication. That means that the few doctors who are willing to prescribe such medications are linked to a higher number of deaths from those medications.
Are the doctors who prescribe narcotic pain medications ‘bad doctors?’ Some doctors would claim that they are. I have described the doctors in a group called PROP, or Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, who take the position that almost all opioid treatment of chronic pain is inappropriate. I understand the point made by those physicians. Treating chronic pain using opioids carries significant risks. Complications, including death, are common. But I have met a number of patients who suffer from severe pain who take issue with doctors who tell them that they are better off without opioid pain medications. And I’ve noticed myself, from my own rare occasional injury, that it is one thing to talk about the proper treatment for someone else’s pain, and another thing when one’s self, or one’s loved one, suffers from pain.
The skewed numbers also demonstrate the problem with online doctor rating systems that report on the complication rate for one doctor vs. another. Across the spectrum of patients in need of surgery, for example, are healthier patients …
I’ve described the ongoing debate over the use of opioids to treat chronic pain. To catch new readers up to speed, the country is in the midst of an epidemic of deaths due to overdose on pain medications or heroin. The epidemic is evident to anyone who spends even a few minutes searching the internet using the keywords ‘overdose deaths.’ Another increasing phenomenon is the prosecution of physicians whose patients have died from overdose. Physicians have been found guilty of manslaughter, even when people used the prescribed medication inappropriately, far outside of prescribed guidelines. It is no surprise that in response, many doctors have stopped treating pain with opioids altogether.
I’ve described one group of physicians, Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing or PROP, who have taken a position seen as extreme by some other physician groups, particularly groups involved in advocating for pain relief. The latest efforts by PROP have resulted in a direct conflict with pain advocacy groups. Readers of this blog who are interested in the issue can have a direct impact on the outcome of the situation.
Medications approved by the FDA have been shown through scientific study to be effective and safe enough to justify their use. At present, opioid pain medications are indicated for moderate or severe pain. There are no other restrictions on the use of pain medications from the FDA, but use of all medications, including opioids, must be within the ‘standard of care,’ a general pattern of practice in a given area that is sometimes difficult to pinpoint.
PROP has asked the FDA to change the indications to state that opioid pain medications are to be used only for severe pain. They also asked that opioids be recommended for use for a maximum of 90 days, and never in doses greater than the equivalent of 100 mg of morphine. They base their request on studies that have shown that some patients develop a condition of increased pain, when maintained on opioids for a prolonged period of time. They are also concerned about the large numbers of deaths from opioids, …
I hope that people recognize the tongue-in-cheek nature of the title. After working as a physician in various roles over a period of 20 years, I can state with absolute confidence that the answer to the question is ‘yes’.
I’ve written numerous times about the writer/activist for the Salem-News.com website, Marianne Skolek. I don’t know if she writes for the print edition as well, but at any rate I somehow was planted on a mailing list that provides constant updates on what she calls the battle against Purdue and ‘big pharma’.
People with a stake in the outcome of this battle may want to stay current, and even see if their Senators are involved in the process. The investigation was launched in early May, by the Senate Committee on Finance, and at this point has asked for documents from several pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue, the manufacturer of oxycontin– a medication that has become the focus for most of the wrath of those affected by opioid dependence.
The investigation will include a number of groups whose missions are (or in some cases, were) to advocate for pain relief, including the American Pain Foundation, the American Pain Society, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the Federation of State Medical Boards, the University of Wisconsin Pain and Policy Studies Group and the Joint Commission.
I’ve written about the Pain Relief Network in prior posts — one side of the battle between those trying to limit access to schedule II opioids (led by PROP, or Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing), and until recently, the Pain Relief Network, or PRN.
If you haven’t read my earlier posts on the subject, I encourage you to do so; the final chapter, including the death of PRN’s founder in a plane crash, had all of the drama of a made-for-TV movie. PRN suffered a number of consecutive blows, including the founder’s death, the loss of a major case against a ‘pill-pushing’ doctor, and investigations into PRN’s finances by the prosecutors of the doctor’s case.
PRN did things that angered too many people, including placing a billboard for jurors to see on the way to the doctor’s case; a deliberate ‘spit in the eye’ of the judge and prosecutors in the case. At some point, I think PRN went too far, and discovered that they didn’t have quite as much power as they thought. PRN no longer exists.
One old guy yelled 31! – and the place broke out in laughter. After a moment or two, another guy yelled 52! – and more laughter erupted. Then a depressed-looking guy in the corner yelled 29! — followed by silence. He yelled again, 68!—and again, the room was silent.
The new recruit asked the guy in the next bunk what was going on. The guy answered, “we’ve been together so long that we know each others’ jokes too well—we decided to just number ‘em and save us the time.”
The new guy asked again, “but what about that guy in the corner?”
“Oh—that’s just Slim—he never could tell a joke.”
I recently exchanged emails with a patient about his complaints of back pain. After reading about his symptoms and history by email, I told him– prior to his first visit– that I would consider treating his back pain and his use of opioids using buprenorphine, but I would not prescribe opioid agonists.
We met and started buprenorphine, but after the second or third visit, he began asking for opioid agonists.
Next month I will be presenting a paper at the annual meeting of ASAM, the American Society of Addiction Medicine. The paper discusses a new method for treating chronic pain, using a combination of buprenorphine and opioid agonists. In my experience, the combination works very well, providing excellent analgesia and at the same time reducing—even eliminating– the euphoria from opioids.
Ten years ago, I would have really been onto something. Back then there were calls from all corners to improve the pain control for patients. The popular belief regarding pain control was that some unfortunate patients were being denied adequate doses of opioid medications. I remember our hospital administrators, in advance of the next JCAHO visit, worried about pain relief in patients who for one or another reason couldn’t describe or report their pain. Posters were put up in each patient room, showing simple drawings of facial expressions ranging from smiles to frowns, so that patients in pain could simply point at the face that exhibited their own level of misery.
What a difference a decade makes! Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, was fined over $600 million for claims that their medication was less addictive than other, immediate-release pain-killers. Thousands of young Americans have died from overdoses of pain medications, many that came from their parents’ medicine cabinets. Physician members of PROP, Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, have called out physicians at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health for having ties to Purdue while arguing against added regulations for potent narcotics.
I’ve described the ongoing debate over use of opioids for chronic pain, and shared information about a group of physicians who are attempting to reduce the damage caused by careless over-prescribing. Their attempts have created some backlash, as described here.
Feel free to comment in response — here or there, or both!
Pills photo available from Shutterstock.
Thank you for your comments about my post about treating chronic pain with opioids. I was in the middle of adding a response to one of the comments this morning, when I decided to elevate my response to a post of its own. Starting a new post might, I hope, keep the discussion going… and besides, I was struggling to find a stopping point!
Here are highlights from the comment I was responding to this morning:
My aunt can attend family functions and be active in her children’s lives WITH the medication. Before she was put on methadone she couldn’t function at all and just lied in bed wanting to commit suicide… I definitely don’t think function is improved by withholding pain medication… I have experienced pain and… I know that when I’m in pain I don’t function well but if I take something for that pain I do. I had a bad headache earlier today and all I wanted to do was to lie on the couch… I think it would be extremely cruel for a doctor to not give me medication that would relieve that pain… Isn’t it as much worth to give opiates to pain patients to save their lives as it is to give them to addicts to save theirs?
One thing I’ve noticed, as a 50-something doc, is that it is one thing to talk about pain, and something else to experience pain. I’ve had thoughts on occasion that the injury I’m suffering at a given time is there, in part, to remind me of what it is like for my patients–who generally are much worse off.
Just a quick note– A group of researchers from Boston University School of Medicine weigh in on the issue of opioid prescribing in an online editorial available through this link. The editorial appears in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, and I do not know how long the link will be active. All such articles are copyright-protected, keeping me from posting them here– but the link operational for non-subscribers, at least for now.
In short, the editorial calls for several measures for patients prescribed chronic opioids, including monitoring for abuse, greater education, and creation of databases to prevent over-prescribing, doctor shopping, etc.
Thank you to everyone who chimed in with opinions about the PROP letter. I shared the comments with the people at PROP, and those who read the comments saw an interesting exchange between the a couple of physicians from that group and a physician from pain-topics.org. Hopefully the letter and comments– along with the other articles I’ve highlighted– will help provide an understanding of the current debate over using opioids for chronic pain.
Backache photo available from Shutterstock.
I’ve written about the spectrum of medical and scientific opinion (not, unfortunately, always the same thing) over the use of opioids for treatment of chronic pain. For those who missed the earlier discussion– one that produced a heated response from readers– I invite you to review those posts.
The essence of the issue is that over many years, there has been significant effort to increase patient access to potent opioids. This effort has come in part from the pharmaceutical industry, but also from organizations that advocate for patients with a wide range of painful conditions, some with connections to pharma, and some without connections to pharma.
There has even been a push to increase opioid prescribing from Federal agencies. Back in the 1990’s, when I chaired my local hospital’s Department of Anesthesia, we were warned by agencies hired by the hospital that the Joint Commision on Accreditation was focusing on pain control one particular year, and that some hospitals had been cited for insufficient prescribing of pain medications.