By Pat Anson, Editor
Canada this week is officially adopting new guidelines for the prescribing of opioid pain medication that are very similar to those released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a little over a year ago.
And, like the CDC guidelines, there is controversy over the role played by addiction treatment specialists and anti-opioid activists in drafting them.
The Canadian guideline, developed at the National Pain Centre at McMaster University and published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, contains 10 recommendations for treating non-cancer chronic pain, most of them focused on reducing the use of opioid medication.
"Opioids are not first-line treatment for chronic non-cancer pain, and should only be considered after non-opioid therapy has been optimized," said Jason Busse, PhD, lead investigator for the guideline and an associate professor of anesthesia at McMaster University’s School of Medicine. "There are important risks associated with opioids, such as unintentional overdose, and these risks increase with higher doses."
Nearly 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from chronic pain and Canada has the second highest rate of opioid prescribing in the world. Opioid overdoses are soaring in Canada, as they are in the United States, but increasingly the deaths involve illegal opioids such as heroin and illicit fentanyl, not prescription painkillers.
The new guideline recommends that non-drug therapies, such as exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy, and non-opioid medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), be used first in treating patients with chronic pain. It is recommended that opioids only be prescribed if patients do not respond to non-opioid treatments, and only if they do not have a history of substance abuse or a psychiatric disorder.
The guidelines also suggest that initial doses of opioids be limited to no more than 50 mg morphine equivalents daily (MED), and strongly recommend that doses not exceed 90 mg MED. The previous Canadian guideline suggested a ceiling of 200 mg MED. For patients who already exceed 90 mg MED, the guideline recommends the gradual tapering of opioids to the lowest effective dose or to discontinue opioid treatment altogether.
"The opioid epidemic has serious consequences for families and communities across Canada. We are committed to working with our partners to ensure a comprehensive response to this public health crisis, including supporting physicians in improving prescribing practices. I applaud the work that went into updating the prescription opioid guideline, and I urge healthcare professionals to apply the recommendations when prescribing these types of medications," said Jane Philpott, Canada's Minister of Health, in a statement.
A major difference with the CDC guideline, which is intended only for primary care physicians, is that the Canadian version applies to all prescribers, including family physicians, pain specialists and nurse practitioners.
The Canadian guideline was also developed with more transparency than the CDC guideline, which was initially drafted in secret meetings by an unidentified panel of experts. Leaks later revealed that the panel included several academics and addiction treatment specialists, but only one retired doctor with experience in pain management.
PROP Involved in Canadian Guideline
Four advisory panels involving over 50 clinicians, academics, patients and “safety advocates” helped draft the Canadian guideline. Among them were three board members of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an anti-opioid activist group that played a key role in drafting the CDC guidelines: PROP Vice-President Gary Franklin, MD, Mark Sullivan, MD, and David Juurlink, MD.
Juurlink, an academic toxicologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, had an influential role on the Canadian Guideline Steering Committee; while Franklin and Sullivan, both of them Americans affiliated with the University of Washington, served on the Clinical Expert Committee.
Juurlink and Sullivan disclosed their involvement with PROP in their conflict of interest statements, while Franklin did not specifically name the group.
“These guidelines, which appear to be influenced by the extremely flawed and biased guidelines by the CDC in the United States, written by a small group of anti-opiate crusaders with strong ties to a large drug rehab chain, seem to reflect more attention to people with addictions and not people with pain,” said Barry Ulmer, Executive Director of the Chronic Pain Association of Canada, in written comments to the guideline.
PROP's founder and Executive Director, Andrew Kolodny, MD, was until recently chief medical officer of Phoenix House, which runs a chain of addiction treatment facilities in the U.S.
A news release on the guideline produced by McMaster University emphasizes that experts with “diverse views on the role of opioids” participated in drafting them and only those “without important financial or intellectual conflicts of interest” were allowed to vote on the recommendations.
Ulmer says the guidelines should have focused on improving pain education for physicians, which is limited in medical schools in both Canada and the U.S.
“Pain patients feel strongly the authors and policy makers behind these guidelines have missed another golden opportunity to create real change in this area of medicine. They would have impacted pain medicine far more positively if they had used their resources to develop forward thinking educational programs and incorporate them into the curricula in our teaching hospitals,” Ulmer wrote.
“By putting forth guidelines like this, at this time, to influence (or control) a profession that has little education and understanding about chronic pain is myopic and similar to the last attempt at guidelines will simply encourage more physicians to dump pain patients they now have. Or is that the real goal?”
One of the many unintendend consequences of the CDC guidelines in the United States is that pain patients are losing access to treatment. A recent survey of over 3,100 patients by PNN and the International Pain Foundation found that over 60 percent had a hard time or were unable to find a doctor willing to treat their chronic pain. Over 90 percent believe the CDC guidelines have harmed patients and worsened the quality of pain care.
Although the CDC guidelines are voluntary and only intended for primary care physicians, they are being implemented and treated as mandatory by many prescribers, insurers, and federal and state agencies. Critics worry the same thing could happen in Canada.
“No guideline can account for the unique features of patients and their clinical circumstances, and the new guideline is not meant to replace clinical judgment. Patients, prescribers and other stakeholders, including regulators and insurers, should not view its recommendations as absolute,” wrote Drs. Andrea Furlan of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, and Owen Williamson of Monash University in Australia, in an editorial published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
British Columbia adopted its own mandatory version of the CDC guidelines nearly a year ago, and made them a legally enforceable standard of care for all prescribers. The move has yet to slow the rising tide of drug overdoses in British Columbia, which are now occurring at a rate of four deaths every day. Most of the overdoses are blamed on illicit fentanyl and other street drugs, not prescription opioids.