Study: 40% of Primary Care Clinics Refuse to See Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Many chronic pain patients know firsthand how difficult it can be to find a new doctor. In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 patients, almost three out of four (72%) said it is harder to find a doctor willing to treat their chronic pain.

“Two doctors refused to see me. I have no quality of life and I'm confined to bed. No one will help me,” one patient told us.

“It's to the point mentioning you need pain relief makes health care professionals look at you as an addict. Hell, when I have tried to get help for my pain and told the doctor I don't want opioids, I still get a suspicious look,” another patient said.

Over a third of patients (34%) in our survey said they’ve been abandoned by doctors and 15 percent said they haven’t been able to find a doctor at all.

A novel study by researchers at the University of Michigan confirms many of our findings. Using a "secret shopper" method, researchers posing as the adult children of patients taking the opioid Percocet called primary care clinics in Michigan to see if they could schedule an appointment for their parent. The callers also said their "parent" was taking medications for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

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79 of the 194 clinics that were called – about 40 percent -- said they would not accept a new patient who was taking opioids, no matter what kind of health insurance they had.

Less than half of the clinics (41%) were willing to schedule an initial appointment and 17 percent said they needed more information before making a decision.

"We were hearing about patients with chronic pain becoming 'pain refugees', being abruptly tapered from their opioids or having their current physician stop refilling their prescription, leaving them to search for pain relief elsewhere," said lead researcher Pooja Lagisetty, MD, who published her findings in JAMA Network Open.

"However, there have been no studies to quantify the extent of the problem. These findings are concerning because it demonstrates just how difficult it may be for a patient with chronic pain searching for a primary care physician."

Lagisetty and her team did find that larger clinics and community health centers were more likely to accept new patients taking opioids, perhaps because they have more resources available to treat such patients.

Still, the overall findings are concerning because they mean many patients who need medical care -- not just for pain but for high blood pressure, diabetes and other common conditions -- are being turned away because of the stigma associated with opioids.

Without access to medical care, researchers say patients may turn to other means of obtaining opioids or to illicit substances. 

Our results suggest that there are significant barriers in accessing primary care for patients taking opioids for chronic pain.
— Pooja Lagisetty, MD, University of Michigan

“These findings may also reflect practitioners' discomfort with managing opioid therapy for chronic pain or treating patients with OUD (opioid use disorder) as a result of pressures to decrease overall opioid prescribing,” researchers found. “In addition, the findings may reflect frontline staff bias against what may be perceived as drug-seeking behavior and may not actually indicate prescriber decision-making or clinic-level policies.

“However, regardless of the reason for denial, our results suggest that there are significant barriers in accessing primary care for patients taking opioids for chronic pain.”

Lagisetty said the 2016 CDC opioid guideline – widely blamed by many patients for restricting access to opioid medication – is only part of the problem.

"States, including Michigan, have implemented many other policies that are only occasionally based on the guidelines, in an effort to restrict opioid prescribing," she said. "We hope to use this information to identify a way for us to fix the policies to have a more patient-centered approach to pain management.

"Everyone deserves equitable access to health care, irrespective of their medical conditions or what medications they may be taking."