Pain Documentary Producer Responds to STAT News

(Editor’s note: STAT News recently published an article about “The Painful Truth” documentary, which is currently airing on some public television stations. The article was critical of the doctor who produced the program for not disclosing that he had “significant financial ties” to the pharmaceutical industry. Dr. Lynn Webster asked STAT for an opportunity to respond to the article, but the site’s managing editor did not agree with Webster’s contention that the article was unfair and that it misrepresented his documentary. Below is the rebuttal column Webster sent to STAT.)  

By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist

In STAT News, David Armstrong's article on March 24, "TV documentary on pain treatment funded by doctor with industry ties," misrepresented the purpose of the film, ignored several of my detailed answers to his questions, and unfairly criticized my professional associations.

Armstrong suggested that the TV documentary downplayed the role of Pharma’s contribution to the opioid problem. It didn’t, nor did it advocate for the use of any drugs, including opioids, because that was not the purpose of the film.

Rather, it focused on the lack of compassion and treatment for people in pain, and it shed light on the largest public health problem in America: chronic pain.

The STAT News article states, “Also criticized is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which last year issued voluntary guidelines that advise doctors that the use of non-opioid treatment is preferred for chronic pain.” Yes, the CDC is criticized in the documentary, but not because it recommends non-opioid treatments. It's criticized because the CDC guidelines have caused many patients to lose access to pain management.

The article inaccurately states that I want opioids to be “the rule” of pain management.  I never said any such thing. As I told Armstrong, I consider opioids to be imperfect analgesics, at best, and I emphasized how critical it is that we develop and research drugs and treatments that will eliminate the need for opioids. I also explained that our current opioid crisis is largely due to lack of insurance coverage for alternatives to opioids.

The documentary clearly advocates for a multi-discipline treatment and favorably shows a clinic where patients get such treatment including bio-feedback, and occupational therapy. It also chronicles the story of NFL football player, Hal Garner, whose life was destroyed by opioids. Given this, it is hard to see how one could conclude the film advocates for opioid therapy.

Armstrong seemed to be most concerned that my professional work with the pharmaceutical industry had somehow influenced the messages in the show. In reality, my wife and I committed to funding the documentary ourselves. We accepted no corporate sponsorship because we wanted the freedom to share the truth of these stories from the patients' point of view, and not from the perspective of pharma, regulators, or insurance.

Publishing the amount of money associated with my research misleads readers into thinking I personally received those funds. I did not. The research dollars received from Pharma were grants for clinical studies conducted by the research company where I was employed. The government requires the funds to be reported under my name since I was the principal investigator for the studies, but I am not a personal recipient of these grants. I clearly explained that to Armstrong when he asked me about those specific funds.

I am currently working with several pharmaceutical companies with the potential to develop game-changing innovations. We are making headway in creating pain medicines that will be as powerful as opioids but will have almost no addiction potential and/or risk of overdose. We need Pharma’s involvement for these advances to occur, and that is why I work with them. I'm deeply grateful that I have the training and experience to contribute something of value to society. My ability to conduct comprehensive medical research enables me to help the community of people living with pain as well as those living with addiction.

Armstrong’s article, filled with criticism as it is, ironically shows why it was important to produce the documentary. It illustrates how opioids are such a volatile topic that anyone associated with them - whether it's a researcher, Pharma, or patients with pain - are subject to censure, antipathy, and bias.

The film attempted to give people in pain a voice. The painful truth is that they have been voiceless and continue to be victims in a broken healthcare system.

Lynn Webster, MD, is vice president of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences and a former President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. He is the author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary of the same name.

You can follow Dr. Webster on his blog, and on Twitter @LynnRWebsterMD, Facebook and LinkedIn.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.