Senators Seek to Silence Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, Editor

We’ve run several columns recently about the poor quality of pain care in hospitals and how many pain sufferers are treated as drug seeking addicts. Emily Ulrich’s column about her mistreatment in hospitals (“The Danger of Treating ER Patients as Drug Seekers”) really hit a nerve, generating hundreds of comments on our website and Facebook page from readers who shared their own hospital horror stories.

This makes a recent letter from a bipartisan group of U.S. senators all the more striking, because it seeks to silence hospital patients who are unhappy about their pain care.

In the letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and 25 of her colleagues claim that many pain sufferers get opioid pain relievers far too easily in hospitals. To see the letter and the list of senators who signed it, click here.

“For millions of patients who are suffering from illness or injury, prompt delivery of pain control which may or may not include opioid pain relievers is proper and humane,” the letter states. “Yet inappropriate use of opioid pain relievers does not provide any clinical benefit and may actually pose a risk of harm. The evidence suggests that physicians may feel compelled to prescribe opioid pain relievers in order to improve hospital performance on quality measures.”

At issue is a Medicare funding formula that requires hospitals to prove they provide quality care through patient satisfaction surveys. The formula rewards hospitals that provide good care and are rated highly by patients, while penalizing those who do not. 

Collins and her colleagues asked Burwell for a “robust examination” of the patient surveys – and strongly suggested that questions about pain management be eliminated. The Medicare survey has 32 questions for patients about their hospital experience, including two that ask if a patient's pain was "well-controlled" during their hospital stay and if hospital staff did "everything they could" to help a patient with pain.

“Currently, there is no objective diagnostic method that can validate or quantify pain. Development of such a measure would surely be a worthwhile endeavor,” the letter says. “In the meantime, however, we are concerned that the current evaluation system may inappropriately penalize hospitals and pressure physicians who, in the exercise of medical judgment, opt to limit opioid pain relievers to certain patients and instead reward those who prescribe opioids more frequently.”

Some doctors agree with that sentiment.  

“I’ve just had conversations with several physicians in the last week and they were saying they felt pressured by patient satisfaction surveys,” Andrew MacLean, deputy executive vice president and general counsel of the Maine Medical Association, told the Portland Press Herald. “This type of inquiry would be helpful and we applaud the senator’s efforts.”

More people suffer from chronic pain than heart disease, diabetes and cancer combined, and pain is a major reason why people even seek admission to a hospital; so the senators are proposing that the opinions of a large segment of hospital patients be ignored, not that it isn't happening already. Pain patients frequently tell us they go without appropriate pain treatment in hospitals because they are quickly labeled as drug seekers. Some have horrific stories of mistreatment.

“My sister had Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD), went to 3 different hospitals was treated the same way. Finally she got a doctor that did his job, only to find out she had stage 4 cancer. She died less than 2 months from the time she got diagnosed,” wrote Melissa.

“My 13 year old daughter went in with chest pain and they told me she was having an anxiety attack. They did nothing. Two days later we found out from the children's hospital that she had a hole in her heart and could have died. ER doctors are the absolute dumbest, cruelest people I have ever met,” said Shannon.

“I used to work in an ER. Patient came in with tremors, talked of pain. She was quickly diagnosed as a pregnant drug addict who received no care and was sent home,” wrote another reader anonymously. “Two days later her husband brought her back demanding treatment. Doctor wanted to put her into rehab when she went into labor along with seizures. It wasn't drugs it was meningitis. She and the baby BOTH died.”

“I take Norco for chronic back pain. I go to the ER for a different medical issue and I get the looks and nothing to relieve my pain. I recently herniated a second disk in my back and was given nothing in the ER. I refuse to go to another one. If I am bleeding out or literally dying I don't know if I would go into another ER. All they do is judge because they can't feel my pain,” wrote Mistye Staten.

“Last time I was in the hospital and asked for medicine to control the pain I was told no. I said I at least wanted Ibuprofen and the nurse yelled at me to stop asking for narcotics,” said Amanda Hunt.

A recent study at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia found that the rate of opioid prescribing dropped by about a third after tougher guidelines were adopted to discourage doctors from prescribing the drugs.

Only 13% of the doctors believed patients with legitimate reasons for opioids were denied appropriate care after the guidelines were implemented. A large majority – 84% of the doctors -- disagreed or strongly disagreed that patients were denied appropriate pain relief. Ironically, the researchers did not ask any pain patients what they thought about their hospital care.