Doctor: Pain Has Never Killed Anyone

By John Hsu, MD, Guest Columnist

The opioid problem with medicine began when The Joint Commission promoted the concept that pain is the fifth vital sign, and that patients should be asked about their pain and the quality of their treatment.

Ten years ago, when my hospital was undergoing an inspection, I clearly remember the examiner chastising me about my multimodal pain therapy and her concern that it would leave patients in pain. Clearly, doctors were put on alert that they could be sued for leaving a patient in pain.

Pain as a fifth vital sign is really contraindicated. Pain has never killed anyone, but opioids killed over 29,000 Americans last year. They don’t have any vital signs.

Doctors are now at a crossroads. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has attached patient satisfaction scores to reimbursement. A patient comes to the office and demands pain meds. If the doctor prescribes pain meds, the doctor can not only lose their license, but go to jail for murder, as Dr. Lisa Tseng from Rowland Heights, CA has. Or they can risk poor patient satisfaction scores and, if they are a part of an accountable care organization (ACO), risk losing their employment.

Why are doctors burned out? Because other people have come between the doctor-patient relationship. I had a nurse tell me that she would put her 21 years in ICU up to my skills as a physician, to which I retorted that she still had to take orders from me.

This loss of respect amid the loss of autonomy is frightening.  It is one of the major complaints doctors describe when they are asked about burnout and why they are leaving medicine. The healthcare team is no longer run by the doctor. It is run by nurses from the quality review department, enforcing best practices on physicians so protocols and guidelines set up by the government are followed.

I call that evidence-less based medicine. Guidelines have destroyed the doctor-patient relationship. Does the government really have patient interests at heart or is the government really just a big micromanager? 

Perhaps the answer to the opioid problem lies with outside-the-box thinking. What if we correctly promote that pain must be present for us to live and that some pain is good?  Unlike Patrick Henry, who said “Give me liberty or give me death,” I personally would prefer to say, "Give me pain and give me liberty, but don't give me death."

Patients have a responsibility to take care of their own health. All prescriptions written by doctors and filled by pharmacists were written correctly. Yet some patients are not compliant and take too many pills. We all know we should not overeat, but 70% of the American public is obese. Humans are their own worst enemies.  Unpopular as this stance may seem, it must be mentioned that while the population of the U.S. is 324 million, 259 million opioid prescription were written in in 2012. 

The Joint Commission's edict that no patient should be in pain changed patients' expectations. Everyone expected and demanded to be pain free. But focusing on the short term discomfort experienced by those in pain ignores the long term goal of improving a patient's health.

The government (FDA, DEA, CDC and policymakers) has decided to restrict opioid prescriptions. This is logical, but does not address human nature. The end result has been that a
ddicts and patients who cannot get prescription opioids have turned to cheaper and easily attainable $5 bags of heroin. Heroin deaths have quadrupled in the last decade. In 2015, over 10,000 people died from heroin overdoses. The situation is rapidly worsening, as illicit drug makers are mixing heroin with fentanyl, which is 70 times stronger than morphine. 

The opioid conundrum has become readily apparent. Opioids may be the best treatment for pain, but they raise the risk of addiction, respiratory suppression, and death.

Cultural Shift Needed in Patient Education

The solutions needed for this dilemma include a cultural shift in the education physicians and nurses give to patients and the perception that pain is bad. We have to forsake the short term treatment of pain with opioids and look to the long term goal of preserving human life.

Let’s look at patient satisfaction scores and medical education. Studies show that when patient satisfaction scores are considered in prescribing care to patients, their care is not only more expensive, but often worse -- resulting in higher morbidity and mortality. Despite this evidence, CMS has connected patient satisfaction scores to hospital reimbursement. 

The Joint Commission has promoted an atmosphere where patients believe that they should never have to suffer pain and have the right to be “pain free.” More opioids were prescribed, but often patients demanded and even threatened doctors if they did obtain pain relief.  Doctors were accused of elder abuse and medical negligence if they did not prescribe pain medication, despite the lack of medical indications or consideration of narcotic alternatives. 

Fast forward a decade and suddenly the government realized that more addicts existed and more people were overdosing. Nearly 19,000 people died in 2014 from opioid prescription overdoses legally obtained from physicians and correctly filled by pharmacists.  The government ironically declared that doctors were to blame. 

The government could not blame patients for the problem, even though the general consensus is that patients were non-compliant with their prescribed opioid doses and shared their narcotics with family and friends.  Patients were not blamed for their actions because they vote and they reelect government officials. 

The government’s solution to the current opioid overdose epidemic was a policy change.  The FDA and CDC forced physicians to limit opioid prescriptions, and increased the difficulty of prescribing opioids by changing the scheduling of hydrocodone from Schedule III to Schedule II.  The government also began criminally prosecuting physicians for murder, even though the patient was noncompliant and overdosed on opioids. 

Why did the The Joint Commission, representing the federal government, have to get involved in medicine?  Why should a federal entity interfere with the doctor-patient relationship? It is not our fault that policies make us do certain things we believe are not in the best interest of the patient.

The Hippocratic Oath directs physicians to not allow outside influences effect their patient care decisions. I would like to see medicine practiced so that the government can no longer come between patients and their doctors. Let us amend the constitution so that there is a separation of medicine and state, just like the separation of church and state.  



John Hsu, MD, has been practicing anesthesia at 600-bed hospital inCalifornia for the past 23 years.

Dr. Hsu recently founded MedRev Pharma, a pharmaceutical development company which is developing a safer opioid that minimizes the risk of abuse, addiction and respiratory depression.  Dr. Hsu is also the Director of SBS Medical Management, a consultation service that addresses issues relating to healthcare reform policies, physician practice management, and medical devices.

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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.