Let’s not kill pain patients to “save” patients with addiction

Let’s not kill pain patients to “save” patients with addiction.
– @StefanKertesz on Twitter

As a physician, I urge caution as we cut back opioids | TheHill | By Dr. Stefan G Kertesz – Mar 28, 2017

“If all we talk about is a pill, for or against,
we are having the wrong conversation
We don’t take care of prescription pads.
We take care of people.” 

Stefan Kertesz is a primary care doctor and a researcher on drug abuse. In this commentary, he shares how decisions about prescribing opioids come from delicate and deliberate conversations between doctors, nurses and patients.

Dr. Kertesz is one of our strongest defenders against arbitrary opioid dose restrictions. As a physician in internal medicine and addiction medicine on the faculty at the Birmingham School of Medicine, his position adds considerable weight to his arguments in the opioid debate.

I’ve posted much of what he’s written, but a good overview of his ideas can be found here: Opioids, Pain and the CDC’s Guideline: Needs Improvement.

Recently I met with a woman, a casualty of our nation’s clumsy efforts to curb its opioid crisis. Her story shows how a myopic fascination with numeric targets, which caused so much harm as our prescribing went up, is likely to cause just as much harm as it comes back down.

A 60 year-old kidney transplant recipient, she required a slew of medications to protect her transplanted kidney. She also took over 100 milligrams daily of an opioid for painful arthritis. Amid national calls to reduce opioid prescriptions, one doctor after another lowered her doses in simple 50 percent steps.

None of them documented any problem caused by her pain pills. None sought her consent. Predictably, she fell apart, as did her adherence to other medications, including ones to protect her kidney. Life spiraled out of control. Ultimately, the threat of losing her kidney compounded the uncontrolled pain of her arthritis. Whether she will keep her costly transplant, or go back on dialysis, is not yet known.

Clumsy new opioid policies are practically designed to ensure her story is not unique.

The pressure on physicians is already intense.

It comes from legislators, law enforcement, insurers, and leaders who equate prescribed opioids with illicit heroin.

Accordingly, doctors cut doses unilaterally and shun pain patients.

Last month, two national agencies entered the fray, with the National Committee for Quality Assurance and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services proposing escalate the pressure.

One (CMS), will restrict insurance coverage based on dose. [this did not come to pass, the dosage restrictions were removed -zyp]

The other (NCQA), proposed a quality measure to flag physicians as engaged in bad practice if they let doses remain high, regardless of how well or poorly the patient is doing.

It will surprise many to learn that such plans were not endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2016, whose review found no data to support the unilateral dose reductions that CMS and NCQA will incentivize.

In its 7th recommendation, the CDC urged that care of patients already receiving opioids be based not on the number of milligrams, but on the balance of risks and benefits for that patient.

That two major agencies have chosen to defy the CDC ignores lessons we should have learned from prior episodes in American medicine, where the appeal of management by easy numbers overwhelmed patient-centered considerations.

Even the run-up in opioid prescribing emerged from an unhealthy enchantment with a single number, the pain score, at the expense of common sense. The cardinal lesson is this: prior to imposing simple numeric targets on all patients, we should require prospective trials showing benefit. That’s what we lack for unilateral opioid dose reductions.

I plead for caution.

Patients with chronic pain report enormous suffering, some committing suicide as they see their lives turned upside down by doctors pressured to reduce.

A rising tide of concern has emerged among academic physicians who have dedicated their work to fighting addiction, including some who worked on the CDC Guideline itself. They see that clinical practice has sprung ahead of data.

To be sure, unrestrained opioid prescriptions are dangerous.

Without oversight and guidelines urging caution, more will be harmed. However, this prudent check on uncontrolled prescriptions need not create a whole new population of chronic pain patients who suffer from overly-prescriptive and oversimplified recommendations that force all prescriptions below a uniform milligram limit.

Eighty professionals, including four who worked on the CDC Guideline, signed a public letter to NCQA, raising the alarm about this entirely predictable downside of new dose-curtailing policies, as did 83 who signed a letter to CMS a few weeks ago.

I’m encouraged to hear that whole groups of medical professionals are showing some resistance – finally, after remaining silent so long while the anti-opioid movement gained momentum without opposition. Still, better late than never.

Among them were leading scholars in addiction medicine, pain and health care quality improvement. We can listen to these experts, or we can let more patients suffer. Now is a good time to remember how easy numbers sometimes make for bad care.

I think it’s especially significant that several addiction specialists are openly opposing these crazy restrictions put into place under pressure from other addiction “experts”.

We can listen to these experts, or we can let more patients suffer. Now is a good time to remember how easy numbers sometimes make for bad care.

Author: Stefan G Kertesz, MD, is a physician in internal medicine and addiction medicine on faculty at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.
Views expressed are his own and do not represent formal positions held by any of his employers.
Follow @StefanKertesz.

3 thoughts on “Let’s not kill pain patients to “save” patients with addiction

  1. Emily Raven

    Sadly it seems like primary and ER docs are just TOLD that this debacle is to help save addicted people. It’s really not. If any of these alphabet agencies, doctor groups and acadamies, and addiction treatment clusters wanted to “save” recreational users this wouldn’t be the way they go about it. The pure and simple fact is that FDA checked pills are light-years away from how dangerous anything you find on the street is…Ask anyone pain patient or addict alike who has had to resort to the mercy of dealers and cartels who simply don’t have any pride in providing “clean” product anymore. “Saving addicts” is just a rhetoric to hide behind for their scheming to make money (addictions specialist centers), save money (insurance companies), and make their stats look better because they no longer deal with patients that will never get better (hospitals and hospital monopolies). This probably goes even deeper to the point I can’t understand, but I do know that pitting the two groups (addictionology/pain management and respective patients) was no accident… It’s the perfect distraction from what’s really going on and that is control based on thinly veiled temperance movement ideology that the doctor organizations somehow failed (or were paid off not to) to keep out of power.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Patients Bear the Pain of Opioid Crisis | EDS and Chronic Pain News & Info

  3. Pingback: Rx down & OD deaths up – CDC in Denial | EDS and Chronic Pain News & Info

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