The Opioid Risk Tool Has Been Weaponized Against Pain Patients

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

I was surprised and deeply disappointed to learn this week that people have been denied opioid prescriptions due to their responses on the Opioid Risk Tool (ORT).

As a guest on the DPP Rally Talk Show with Claudia Merandi, I heard from a caller who told me that her doctor denied her an opioid prescription based on her ORT answers.

One particular answer seems to have caused the caller’s problem: She acknowledged her history of experiencing preadolescent sexual abuse. Apparently, the doctor used that as a reason to deny her access to opioid medication to treat her pain. This is a terrible misapplication of the tool.

The ORT is a self-assessment tool I developed and published about 15 years ago. It was developed at a time when we didn’t know the rate of opioid abuse in patients who were prescribed an opioid for noncancer pain. We needed a tool to help evaluate whether the risk of potential harm from opioids outweighed the good.

I never intended for doctors to use the ORT to determine who should or shouldn’t be prescribed an opioid. My goal was to help doctors identify patients who were at increased risk of misuse and addiction, so that they could receive more careful observation during treatment.

Since abuse and addiction are diagnosed by observing atypical behaviors, knowing which patients are at greatest risk for displaying those behaviors is useful in establishing appropriate levels of monitoring for abuse.

I was not alone in the belief that it was critical to assess patients for their risk potential.

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In 2009, the American Pain Society and American Academy of Pain Medicine published a guideline for opioid prescribing. Its first recommendation stated: “Prior to initiating COT (chronic opioid therapy), clinicians should conduct a history, physical examination, and appropriate testing, including an assessment of risk of substance abuse, misuse, or addiction.”

Then, in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s opioid-prescribing guideline recommended that “before starting and periodically during continuation of opioid therapy, clinicians should evaluate risk factors for opioid-related harms.”

Several other opioid prescribing guidelines also recommended assessing patient risk before initiating therapy. These included the Washington State Department of Health, Utah Clinical Guidelines on Prescribing Opioids for Treatment of Pain, the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians (ASIPP) Opioid Guidelines, and others.

Risk Factors for Opioid Abuse

Assessing the risk of developing opioid abuse is based on genetic and environmental factors, just as it is with other diseases. Accordingly, the ORT includes questions about family and personal history of substance abuse, since both areas contribute to genetic and environmental factors. 

Genetics are estimated to contribute between 50 to 60% of an individual's vulnerability to opioid addiction. By contrast, genetics contribute only about 30% to a person's vulnerability to marijuana.

A person with one addiction is seven times more likely to develop an addiction to a different class of drugs, so genetics plays a major role in determining who will and who will not develop an opioid use disorder (OUD). Additionally, life experiences -- which are part of one’s environment -- also play a role.

The ORT asks if there is a history of experiencing preadolescent sexual abuse. Studies indicate that preadolescent sexual abuse is believed to result in something clinically similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has reported that 30 to 60% of women who are undergoing drug abuse treatment suffer from PTSD. One treatment center in New York City reports that more than 90% of women treated for substance abuse had experienced sexual or traumatic abuse. 

According to another NIDA report, victims of rape were 10 times more likely to have abused heroin and other stimulants than the general population. A study in 2000 also showed that a history of preadolescent sexual abuse tripled the risk of drug use disorders.

Many other studies have corroborated these studies, showing that preadolescent sexual abuse is a risk factor for substance abuse later in life. The most important of these is the seminal CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experience Study.

A Cruel Misapplication of ORT

Environmental and genetic factors should influence how closely a patient's opioid use is monitored. However, a history of experiencing preadolescent sexual abuse does not mean a person will necessarily develop an OUD. It is only a risk factor. It does not determine the outcome of using opioids, although it may partially indicate the level of monitoring, support, and education that would be appropriate.

It is a cruel misapplication of the ORT to use a background of sexual abuse as the only criterion to assess whether a patient should receive opioid therapy. The ORT is an important tool in mitigating harm that prescribing opioids could cause. It should not be weaponized to justify denying people in pain appropriate therapy. 

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.” You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

The information in this column 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.