Survey Shows Doctors Shunning Chronic Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, Editor

Chronic pain patients are not only having problems getting opioid medication, most are finding it hard just finding a doctor willing to treat their pain, according to a new survey.

Nearly 3,400 patients, doctors and healthcare providers responded to the online survey by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation, which was designed to assess the impact of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines after one year.

The guidelines are voluntary and only intended for primary care physicians, but are being implemented throughout the U.S. healthcare system, often with negative consequences for patients. Over 70 percent of patients said they are no longer being prescribed opioid medication or are getting a lower dose. 

Asked if it has become easier or harder to find a doctor willing to treat their chronic pain, nearly half of patients said it was harder and 11% said they were not able to find a doctor. 

“I have been unable to find a doctor to treat my pain. I was going to a pain doctor but she suddenly dropped all her chronic pain patients to focus on surgery,” said a patient who added that he is now buying pain medication on the black market.

“I have found a new primary care doctor that is OK with prescribing Valium but stated she won't treat chronic pain because ‘the DEA is watching all of us,’” wrote another patient.

"I have been told by more than one doctor that they cannot legally prescribe over the guidelines. They are very concerned about being investigated and as a result refuse to treat pain with an appropriate dose of opioids," said another patient.


"I was weaned off opiates last summer," said a patient. "My lower back and head are now in constant pain. I tried to hang myself last December but failed and spent a few days in hospital. Everyone thinks it was bad fall. Next time I won't fail."

"You have taken away my life. I am no longer a member of society, but more importantly, I can no longer function as a mother to two disabled children. I have exhausted all alternative methods of treatment. What do I do now? Illicit drugs or suicide?" asked one mother.

Doctors and healthcare providers are well aware that pain patients are losing access to treatment. Over two-thirds (67%) acknowledge that it is harder for patients to find a doctor.  A small number (9%) admit they’ve stopped treating chronic pain patients.

“I feel a standard of care for pain management has been needed, but the chronic pain patient is being lost in the process,” wrote a pain management provider. “For the first time in 5 years, I had to tell a patient I did not know what to do to help them. Pain management needs regulations, but should not cause the quality of life of chronic pain patients to suffer.”

"The manner in which (the guideline) was issued and received seemed to cause a response in which patients were basically titrated off all medication. Over half of my patients were treated this way," said a psychologist.

"Further, there appeared to be little or no assistance or cooperation in this process of removing a patient's analgesic medication. Overall, I believe that the response to CDC guidelines has harmed legitimate pain patients."

Doctors Worried About Prosecution

Why are some doctors shunning pain patients? They’re not worth the risk or hassle may be the simplest way to explain it. Consider some of the problems healthcare providers say they've dealt with in the past year:

  • 59% say a pharmacy refused to fill an opioid prescription for a patient
  • 57% say insurance refused to pay for a pain treatment they thought necessary
  • 36% are worried about being prosecuted or sanctioned for prescribing opioids
  • 20% have discharged a patient for failing a drug test
  • 15% are referring more patients to addiction treatment
  • 10% have lost a pain patient to suicide

Only 12 percent said their patients were better off without opioids and just 16% said their patients were getting safer and more effective treatment since the guidelines were released. Over a third (38%) believe their patients have more pain and a reduced quality of life.

The survey also found a sizeable number of doctors and providers who mistakenly believe the CDC guidelines are mandatory for everyone. While 70% correctly recognize them as voluntary, 20% think they are mandatory and 10% of healthcare professionals admit they simply don’t know.

"When a government agency suggests treatment guidelines, they will become the law. That is currently happening. We have reduced the number of pain patients and are no longer accepting new pain patients. The fear of prosecution is very real," wrote one pain management doctor.

"They are being interpreted as mandates and creating fear about ever using opioids to treat pain appropriately," said a provider who treats geriatric patients.

“(They) need to make it even more clear that these guidelines are geared for primary care and not experienced board certified pain doctors. Creating hysteria is what this is doing,” said a pain management doctor.

“While well meaning, the guidelines are incredibly biased and my colleagues are using them as an excuse to arbitrarily exclude patients from opioids when they clearly need them,” wrote an emergency room doctor.


There is a strong divergence between patients and providers about the safety and effectiveness of opioids. Nearly two-thirds of doctors and providers (64%) think there are safer and better alternatives than opioids, while only about 7 percent of patients think so.    

Another area of disagreement is whether the guidelines are causing more harm than good. The vast majority of patients -- over 95 percent -- believe they have been harmful, while only 40 percent of doctors and providers think so. Nearly one in four healthcare professionals (22%) believe the guidelines have been helpful to patients, while only about 1% of patients think so.

"We have two problems in the U.S. A drug addiction problem and a chronic pain problem. We should not be attempting to treat one problem if that will also create a worsening problem in those that suffer from the other," wrote a primary care doctor. "We need to work on a solution to the addiction problem while still allowing those with chronic pain that need the opioids in order to sustain an acceptable quality of life."

The online survey of 3,108 pain patients, 43 doctors and 235 other healthcare providers was conducted between February 15 and March 11. For more on how the guidelines are affecting patients, click here.

To see the complete survey results, click here.