Survey Repudiates Canada’s Pain Care Policies   

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN columnist

A recent survey by the Chronic Pain Association of Canada (CPAC) demonstrates all too well that our Canadian neighbors are sharing in the misfortune of America’s man-made crisis in pain care.

The online survey was distributed to patients via social media during a two-month period in the summer of 2019. CPAC received 740 responses from all 10 provinces and the territory of Nunavut. Key findings add to the growing evidence that people in pain are suffering from policies aimed at reducing access to pain medication.

  • Almost two-thirds of respondents (64%) reported they have not had adequate pain control in the past two years

  • A similar number (66.2%) feel discriminated against and degraded because they require opiate medicines to cope with severe pain

  • A third of patients (33.5%) have either been abandoned by their doctors or their doctors have refused to continue prescribing for them

  • Close to half (47.8%) have been forced against their will to taper their doses

  • Nearly 45% either have deteriorated relations with their medical providers or no longer have a doctor

  • Almost 40% were not adequately treated for pain in emergency rooms

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Substitutes for opiates have not helped. About 70% of patients surveyed say they are more disabled, can do less with their lives, and their quality of life has declined.

Desperate Solutions

Almost 40% of patients have considered suicide because of the increased pain, while 5.4% have actually attempted suicide. A third of respondents (33.5%) reported that they know of someone who did commit suicide because of increased pain.

One other “desperate solution” is that nearly 10% of patients have substituted dangerous street drugs for what they previously received as safe prescriptions. Nearly a third of respondents (30.8%) reported they know patients who are purchasing street drugs for this reason.

Based on these findings, CPAC Executive Director Barry Ulmer penned a letter to Canada's Minister of Health.

"I’m writing on the first day of Canada’s National Pain Week, when the country notes the tragedy of chronic pain, the right of all Canadians to have their pain relieved, and government’s obligation to ensure appropriate and timely care,” Ulmer wrote.

“Yet two million Canadians with ongoing pain serious enough to warrant treatment with opioid analgesics still suffer profoundly — and pointlessly — because federal policy dismisses their needs. In today’s opioid-averse regulatory climate, their access to care shrinks precipitously as Canada’s pain specialists vanish from practice, and especially from prescribing."

Ulmer's letter further describes how people in pain feel that they are being erroneously blamed for Canada’s overdose problem. Many are being forced to taper or discontinue their pain medications. 

The CPAC findings mirror the results of a U.S. survey by Pain News Network which was released on the third anniversary of the 2016 publication of the CDC opioid prescribing guideline.  

In a critique of Canada’s 2017 opioid guideline – which was modeled after the CDC’s -- the Canadian Family Physician reports the guideline has left the Canadian health care system unable to manage its high-dose opioid patients:  

“However well-meaning they are, the 2017 Canadian opioid prescribing guidelines were introduced to a health care system ill equipped to care for patients with chronic pain. 

Without a clear and implementable patient-oriented strategy, combined with universal training in safe and effective chronic pain and addiction management for all health care providers, well-meaning documents like the 2017 Canadian guidelines might inadvertently harm the very people they hope to help."

As in the U.S., Canadian doctors are refusing to prescribe the opioids that patients need and alternative treatments are insufficient. The pharmaceutical industry is being villainized and health care professionals who prescribe opioids are under pressure to inappropriately adhere to a one-size-fits-all solution for pain patients.  

It is understandable that politicians want to reduce the harm from inappropriate use of opioids, but it should not be at the expense of people in pain. This is a human rights issue that must not be ignored.   

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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 Lynn on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

Opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views or policy of PRA Health Sciences or Pain News Network.