The Visible Few Pain Patients

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

I receive several emails a week from people who ask for help because their treatment options have been limited or eliminated. They are in terrible pain, and they don’t know what to do.

One such person, Sharon Berenfeld, MD, recently shared an experience she had visiting her doctor.

“Dr. Webster, I came across a publication of yours. It struck a nerve with me. My pain is intractable. I have tried everything,” she wrote. “Before the exam room door even closed, [my doctor] announced to me, ‘If you think I’m just here to refill your pills, you can leave now.'

"I left in tears. I was being judged and punished for having a complication from cancer treatment. I completely understand the opioid crisis. But I feel impotent to do anything."

Who Are the Visible Few?

Earlier this year, Fox News' three-part series, Treating America's Pain: Unintended Victims of the Opioid Crackdown, showed the terrifying circumstances of people in pain and doctors under siege. One individual’s decision to commit suicide as a result of the crackdown on opioid prescribing embodies the struggles of people in pain and their providers' inability to meet their needs.

The visible few are the small number of people whose stories have been heard by journalists, media consumers and government officials. Their stories reflect millions of Americans suffering from chronic pain who live in the shadows and are invisible to most of us. 

The needs of people in pain and the challenges providers face when treating them have been overshadowed by the government's attempts to deal with the opioid crisis. The well-intentioned CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain has affected 20 million Americans with severe disabling pain.

It also is having consequences for everyone else in the healthcare system. Prescription opioids have been demonized and blamed for our current drug crisis.

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Unintended Consequences

The CDC guideline was supposed to be voluntary. However, in practice, the guideline has been treated as a policy with the strength of a law, and it has had severe unintended consequences. Many people are worse off in its wake. Here is a summary of the most substantial effects of the guideline.

  • Providers feel pressured to reduce the amount of opioids that they prescribe, regardless of their patients' individual needs. About 70% of physicians have reduced their opioid prescribing or stopped it completely.

  • Insurance companies set prescription limits based on the guideline. In some cases, they override physicians' recommendations. That means insurers, rather than doctors, are making decisions about how to treat pain.

  • Pharmacy chains are also limiting the amount of opioids they dispense, based on the guideline rather than on doctors' prescriptions..

  • The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have set dosage limits. Providers advocating for patients who need higher amounts must navigate a complicated appeals process.

  • State attorneys general have used the guideline to evaluate whether a doctor is prescribing for a legitimate medical purpose. Deviation from the guideline has been used to accuse doctors of criminal conduct.

  • In a desperate search for pain relief, some patients have turned to street drugs.

Where We Are Now

The CDC guideline has left a trail of misunderstanding in its path. Its authors acknowledged misapplication of the guideline in the New England Journal of Medicine, emphasizing that their intention was to provide guidance rather than to establish a mandate.

"Difficulties faced by clinicians in prescribing opioids safely and effectively, growing awareness of opioid-associated risks, and a public health imperative to address opioid overdose underscored the need for the guidance,” they wrote.

In a separate article in the JAMA Network, the guideline's authors said, “The number of people experiencing chronic pain is substantial, with U.S. prevalence estimated at 11.2% of the adult population. Patients should receive appropriate pain treatment based on careful considerations of the benefits and risks of treatment options.”

There are other signs of recognition that the guideline has been misinterpreted. For example, CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, wrote in a letter to Health Professionals for Patients in Pain (HP3), “The CDC is working diligently to evaluate the impact of the guideline and clarify its recommendations to reduce unintended harm.”

The American Medical Association's House of Delegates passed a series of resolutions on the guideline at an interim meeting in November 2018.

“Physicians should not be subject to professional discipline, loss of board certification, loss of clinical privileges, criminal prosecution, civil liability, or other penalties or practice limitations solely for prescribing opioids at a quantitative level above the morphine milligram level thresholds found in the CDC guidelines for prescribing opioids,” the AMA delegates said.

There is also some light being shined on the issue in a report by The Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach when treating and managing patients with painful conditions. Individuals who live with pain are suffering and need compassionate, individualized and effective approaches to improving pain and clinical outcomes. This is a roadmap that is desperately needed to treat our nation’s pain crisis,” said Vanila Singh, MD, task force chair and chief medical officer of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health.

As the opioid odyssey continues, there are signs that the visible few are beginning to be heard. This is an important step to helping the invisible millions with chronic pain receive the care they deserve.

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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.