Getting the Story Right About Opioids

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Many chronic pain sufferers feel they are wrongly portrayed in the media as malingerers and addicts – and that the growing difficulty they have just getting their pain treated is being ignored by the medical profession.

There’s a fair amount of truth to that.

Which is why two recent articles in Politico and The New England Journal of Medicine – both written by doctors – are worth highlighting for PNN readers. They help dispel many of the myths about pain patients and the role they played in the so-called opioid epidemic.

“As an addiction psychiatrist, I have watched with serious concern as the opioid crisis has escalated in the United States over the past several years, and overdose deaths have skyrocketed,” Sally Satel, MD, wrote in Politico. “I have also watched a false narrative about this crisis blossom into conventional wisdom: The myth that the epidemic is driven by patients becoming addicted to doctor-prescribed opioids, or painkillers like hydrocodone.”

Satel practices at a methadone clinic, lectures at the Yale University School of Medicine and is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.  She has also done her homework about the opioid crisis, recognizing that the nation’s growing scourge of overdose deaths is “overwhelmingly attributable” not to prescription opioids, but to illegal opioids like heroin and illicit fentanyl.

Satel also acknowledges that opioid prescriptions in the U.S. have been declining for years and that only a small percentage of pain patients become addicted. Yet insurers, pharmacies and regulators continue to tighten access to opioid medication, and anti-opioid activists rant about pain patients getting hooked after taking a few “heroin pills.”

“We must be realistic about who is getting in trouble with opioid pain medications. Contrary to popular belief, it is rarely the people for whom they are prescribed. Most lives do not come undone, let alone end in overdose, after analgesia for a broken leg or a trip to the dentist,” Satel wrote.

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“We need to make good use of what we know about the role that prescription opioids plays in the larger crisis: that the dominant narrative about pain treatment being a major pathway to addiction is wrong, and that an agenda heavily weighted toward pill control is not enough.”

That narrative clearly has been harmful to patients. Satel cites a PNN survey of over 3,000 patients, which found that over 70% were no longer prescribed opioids or had their dose cutback after the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines were released in 2016.  Nine out of ten patients said the guidelines had worsened the quality of pain care in the United States, and 60 percent said it had become harder or impossible for them to find a doctor willing to treat their pain.

The Story of Mr. P

Patient abandonment and the growing lack of access to pain treatment is presented in the story of “Mr. P” – as told in the NEJM by Drs. George Comerci, Joanna Katzman and Daniel Duhigg, who are colleagues at a pain clinic in Albuquerque, NM.

“Mr. P. was given a prescription for a month’s worth of oxycodone and advised to find another prescriber in the future.  Not unexpectedly, six other physicians refused to prescribe him opioids, and he ended up in our pain clinic, sobbing in the exam room, terrified that he’d end up ‘back in my old life’ if he had to buy his pain medications on the street,” the doctors wrote.

“In the past year, our university-based interdisciplinary pain clinic has seen a flood of cases like Mr. P.’s. The increase in opioid-related mortality fueled by injudicious prescribing and increasing illicit use of both prescription and illegal opioids has led some clinicians to simplify their lives by discontinuing prescribing of opioid analgesics. The fallout is a growing pool of patients who are forced to navigate their transition off prescribed opioids, often with little or no assistance or guidance, with the potential for disastrous results.”

What is happening to these abandoned patients who can’t find adequate treatment?

“We fear that an injudicious approach involving blanket refusals to prescribe opioids and adoption of unreasonable prescribing and dispensing regulations will increase patient suffering. Furthermore, the worst-case scenario is for patients to obtain prescription opioids illegally and eventually transition to more dangerous drugs, such as heroin,” the doctors warned.

The opioid crisis continues to spiral out of control. Government efforts to dictate prescribing and intimidate doctors are not only harming patients, they may be making things worse. A recent report from the CDC found that illicit fentanyl – not prescription pain medication — was responsible for over half the overdoses in ten states.

As Sally Satel points out, if we ever hope to fix the problem and find the right solutions, we need to stop focusing on patients and doctors.

“We cannot rely on doctors or pill control policies alone to be able to fix the opioid crisis. What we need is a demand-side policy. Interventions that seek to reduce the desire to use drugs, be they painkillers or illicit opioids, deserve vastly more political will and federal funding than they have received,” she wrote. “If we are to devise sound solutions to this overdose epidemic, we must understand and acknowledge this truth about its nature.”

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