From Bad to Worse for Pain Patients?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Has the pendulum swung too far against pain patients?

The answer is "Yes" according to some leading pain management experts at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM) in Palm Springs.  The AAPM represents 2,400 physicians and health care providers, including some who have stopped prescribing opioid pain medication because they fear prosecution or sanctions if they prescribe to patients who might abuse the drugs.

"There are a variety of primary care doctors that are dropping out altogether (from prescribing opioids). They will not allow it. They're saying everybody has to go to a pain management expert or you don't get anything. And its abrupt," said Bill McCarberg, MD, President of the AAPM. "For that group of patients, you're cutting everybody off inappropriately. There are some of those patients who probably need those medications, who do better with medications."

McCarberg, who volunteers at a health clinic in San Diego, says even opioids with abuse deterrent properties are difficult to prescribe because they are expensive and usually not covered by insurance. He is not optimistic about the continued use of opioids in pain management.

"In my experience over the last year its gotten worse and I think a year from now it will be even worse," McCarberg said. "When you come back here in five years, in ten years, we'll be having the discussion about the pendulum being over here, patients suffering.  About you getting shoulder surgery and getting nothing but acetaminophen to treat your shoulder because nobody is willing to give you more (opioids). That's what I worry about."

"I think that's right. I think the pendulum has swung in the direction of things being worse for patients very rapidly and very dramatically. And I don't think its finished swinging yet," says Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the American Academy of Pain Management.

"I think its the general atmosphere, the whole focus on opioid overdoses and all of that stuff.  That's what is driving the CDC's actions and every bit of the press that's out there is about that problem. And until we get the other side of the story out there and point out that not treating pain has negative consequences too, including people dying, until we can get that story out there and get some traction with it, patients are in a bad place."

PROP President Speaks to AAPM

Although the AAPM has "very significant concerns" about the quality of evidence and "negative bias" in some of the CDC's proposed opioid prescribing guidelines, it invited a controversial figure who helped draft them to its annual meeting. Jane Ballantyne, MD, who is president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), served on a CDC advisory panel known the "Core Expert Group." The CDC guidelines discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

Ballantyne, who gave a talk at the AAPM meeting on "Pain Curriculum Development for Primary Care Practitioners," recently come under fire for co-authoring an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that said reducing pain intensity should not be the primary goal of doctors that treat chronic pain. 

Several patient advocates asked AAPM to remove Ballantyne from the program.

"How, in good conscience, can you include someone with her views about pain teach other physicians, or influence future curriculum for physicians, on how to effectively treat pain? It is clear from her writings that she doesn’t understand pain, or painful disease processes. Should someone with views like this be influencing our present and future doctors?" wrote Ingrid Hollis of Families for Intractable Pain Relief in a letter to the AAPM.

"While I appreciate your concerns about including Dr. Ballantyne as a member of the faculty, the Academy will not comply with your request that it remove her from the program," responded Phil Saigh, Jr., Executive Director of AAPM. "The Academy is committed to the free exchange of information and perspectives among pain physicians and other clinicians.  It is this commitment that ensures that diverse perspectives are examined rather than creating a one-size-fits-all approach to education. To remove Dr. Ballantyne from the program would not be true to that commitment."

Ballantyne's presentation was low key and did not focus on opioid use. She spoke about improving pain curriculum in medical schools, an area where there is broad agreement that change is needed. 

"Pain education has been really, really bad. And a large part of the problem, in terms of primary care, is actually managing those with chronic pain and not having received any education on how to do that," said Ballantyne, who explained that her own education and training in the 1970's focused on pain medication and injections, and did not include other disciplines such as psychology.

"The evidence suggests strongly that entry level pain management training is widely inadequate across all disciplines in the United States. Only a few medical schools in Canada and the U.S. offer courses on pain," she said. "The young primary care physicians that I work with are suddenly faced with this extremely complex disease, chronic pain, and they have only been taught to see it in a unitary way. That's what leads to a very simple treatment goal, which is simply to reduce pain intensity.



"When we treat chronic pain we do an awful lot more or want to achieve an awful lot more than simply reducing pain intensity. We want to improve people's lives. We want to help them function better. We want to improve their state of mind and their mood, and have to pay attention to all the other factors that contribute to the disease. Chronic pain is a complex disease that is not simply a focus on pain intensity. And that's one thing we can really help in our teaching."