ER Doctors Lobby to Silence Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, Editor

A professional organization for emergency room physicians has joined in a lobbying effort to stop asking hospital patients about the quality of their pain care.

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

In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the head of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) claims that asking patients about their pain care could lead to overprescribing of opioid pain medication. To see the letter, click here.

“Patient experience/satisfaction surveys are important, particularly regarding issues of treating patients with dignity and respect, but questions about pain have resulted in unintended consequences and the pursuit of high patient-satisfaction scores may actually lead health professionals and institutions to practice bad medicine by honoring patient requests for unnecessary and even harmful treatments,” wrote Jay Kaplan, MD, President of ACEP, which represents over 30,000 emergency room physicians in the U.S.

“Any questions which provide an opportunity for patients to express dissatisfaction because they didn’t get the drugs they sought, provide disincentives for physicians to prescribe non-opioid analgesics which will negatively affect their scores.”

Only two questions are asked about pain in the 32-question survey known as the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS):

During this hospital stay, how often was your pain well-controlled?

During this hospital stay, how often did the hospital staff do everything they could to help you with your pain?

In his letter, Kaplan states “there is no objective diagnostic method that can validate or quantify pain” and until one is developed, both pain questions should be dropped from the survey.

“We are concerned that the current evaluation system may inappropriately penalize hospitals and 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,” Kaplan wrote. “We urge the Department to undertake a robust examination of whether there is a connection between these measurements and potentially inappropriate prescribing patterns, and, until that is completed, we urge you to remove pain questions from the various CAHPS surveys.”

Kaplan’s letter is similar to one sent to Secretary Burwell in February by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and 25 of her colleagues in the U.S. Senate. To see that letter and the senators who signed it, click here.

“The evidence suggests that physicians may feel compelled to prescribe opioid pain relievers in order to improve hospital performance on quality measures,” wrote Sen. Collins.

Both Collins and Kaplan cite only one piece of “evidence” – a 2013 magazine article in The Atlantic  -- that mentions a small study of “drug seeking behavior” by emergency room patients. The article's author, who is a physician, also mentions anecdotal comments from colleagues and concludes “this problem is widespread.”  

Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation recently conducted a survey of over 1,250 pain patients and found that what is actually widespread in hospitals is poor pain care. Over half the patients surveyed said the quality of their pain treatment was poor or very poor and over 80 percent said hospital staffs are not adequately trained in pain management. Nine out of ten patients said they should be asked about their pain care in hospital satisfaction surveys.

“Before eliminating patients' right to critique their pain care, a better idea would be to ask doctors what they know about pain!” wrote one patient. 

When Pain News Network provided ACEP with the survey results, a spokesperson declined to comment on the findings.

A top Medicare official recently wrote an article in JAMA defending the HCAHPS survey.

"It has been alleged that, in pursuit of better patient responses and higher reimbursement, HCAHPS compels clinicians to prescribe prescription opioids. However, there is no empirical evidence that failing to prescribe opioids lowers a hospital’s HCAHPS scores," wrote Lemeneh Tefera, MD, Quality Measurement and Value-Based Incentives Group, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

"Although opioids are sometimes appropriate, depending on the underlying cause, other nonpharmaceutical approaches and multiple nonopioid pain medications are available to treat pain. Nothing in the survey suggests that opioids are a preferred way to control pain. On the other hand, good nurse and physician communication are strongly associated with better HCAHPS scores."

“I find this notion that we would stop asking patients how well their pain was controlled in the hospital appalling,” said Cindy Steinberg, National Director of Policy and Advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation. “I find it perverse that we would be more concerned with whether doctors in a hospital setting felt ‘pressure’ to provide pain relief than whether patients felt the hospital staff did all they could to help them with their pain. What ever happened to the focus on ‘patient-centered’ care?"