By Stefan Kertesz, MD, Guest Columnist
President Obama began his 2016 State of the Union address by referencing an American epidemic of opioid overdoses. He was right to do so. The Centers for Disease Control report that 2014 saw a record of 18,893 deaths related to opioid overdose, a category that includes both medications and heroin. Given a rising tide of deaths, it is only sensible to look closely at how opioids come into distribution. There is more than one path. Doctors write prescriptions, and the pills may be consumed properly or improperly. Or they can be sold, given to friends, or stolen. Heroin is incredibly cheap and potent these days. It’s often laced with other drugs and can cause overdose in ways that users can’t predict.
A major portion of the public health response has focused on doctors and their prescriptions (disclosure: I’m a primary care doctor trained in internal medicine and addictions). Most public health authorities believe a major contributor to the rising tide of overdoses has something to do with the prescriptions for opioids we write. Our tendency to write prescriptions for pills like hydrocodone or morphine rose precipitously from 2000 to 2011.
Everyone knows a story of someone who wheedles pills out of credulous physicians. Barring a few so-called pill mills (which alone cannot account for the rise in prescriptions), most doctors writing prescriptions for opioid pills do so in response to a patient with severe chronic pain. There are an estimated 100 million Americans with chronic pain, and between 5 and 8 million take opioids for that pain.
It stands to reason that among the patients who have received opioid prescriptions, surely some (or many) should not have received them. Many doctors have decided to prescribe less, starting in 2012, according to national data.
If prescribing went down while overdoses went up these past few years, it’s fair to say that there is room for argument about precisely how doctor’s prescriptions relate to overdoses. But few would argue there is no relationship at all. Thus, great hopes are pinned on the notion that getting doctors to prescribe differently (and less) for their patients with pain will be key.
Last year the Centers for Disease Control, after consulting an extensive array of experts and interest groups, prepared a draft guideline for doctors on prescribing opioids. In December they placed notice in the Federal Register seeking public commentary. By deadline on January 13, over 4,300 comments were received.
There is a reason this document excites so much passion. In part, organizations such as the American Cancer Society project this guideline will not be voluntary, but will carry force of law.
The hope is to prevent development of addiction and overdose that devastates countless families. Yet, there are those 5 to 8 million patients who receive opioids, some of whom believe that they are at risk of losing access to a crucial medication that is helping manage their pain, improve their quality of life and overall function. As medical boards, insurers and government agencies enforce this guideline, prescribing differently from the topline recommendations is likely to become onerous, leaving many patients in the lurch.
If you listen to this conversation between this 70-year old coal miner who suffered 18 major injuries, and a chief advocate (addiction specialist Dr. Andrew Kolodny) for the reduction of opioid prescribing, you feel the tension. You will hear the distress of a man who fears being confined to bed from his pain, and the concern of an addiction doctor who believes opioid pills have done harm, not good, even perhaps to the man to whom he is speaking.
The experts convened by the CDC include many I know and respect. They have taken a fairly strong stand. They conclude that the literature shows no evidence of enduring benefit from opioids, and that measurable harms are tied closely to dose. They urge careful assessment of risk and benefit. They urge aggressive use of urine drug testing to identify patients who take opioid medication differently from intended or use illicit drugs.
In 56 pages, they say a lot more. My primary care patients include several with chronic pain, and my practice lines up pretty closely with precisely what the guideline recommends. And despite that, I feel this guideline is not yet ready, not given the power we project it to have.
For reasons I shared with the CDC, I think it reaches a bit beyond the available science in some places, neglects it in others, and misconstrues how best to translate it in the care of our patients. It risks making opioids less available to patients who are benefiting from them. It is not far from where it needs to be, but it needs improvement.
Friends, some of them national leaders in primary care, addiction and pain medicine, have urged me to publish this concern broadly.
For people interested in learning more about these concerns, I offer them in linked piece at Medium.com. I offer it to show that one can take a different stand without rejecting the science or the underlying public health commitment that I fully share with the honorable drafters of the CDC’s draft Guideline. For the readers who believe I am right, or perhaps have also misconstrued the science, I welcome your thoughts.
Stefan Kertesz, MD, is an Associate Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. Opinions expressed are solely his own and do not represent positions of any agency of the U.S. Federal Government or the State of Alabama.
This column is republished with permission by the author. It originally appeared in Medium.com, along with the comments submitted by Dr. Kertesz to the CDC about the guideline.
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.