Pain Protestors: 5 Simple Ways to Stand Up

By Pat Akerberg, Columnist

It frustrates me that there’s such a huge gap between what I’d like to do and what I can actually do to protest how pain care has gone amok. 

The truth is I can’t talk without triggering unmerciful pain.  I can’t make lots of phone calls or present to audiences or groups anymore.  I can’t march, run or walk for any distance now.  Thanks to debilitating chronic pain, I can’t reliably commit my energies to much more than the daily challenges I face. 

Maybe you’re in the same place too? 

As discouraged underdogs, we want to change the lopsided fervor that’s trumping our critical need for safe and humane advancements in pain care.

I wish we could lead the charge, but in reality our compromised bodies often can’t keep up with what that requires. Starting from scratch is tempting, but that’s at cross-purposes with our limited capacities.    

Then I remember “the butterfly effect,” born out of physics and chaos theory.  It refers to a cumulatively large effect that a very small force may produce in a larger system over a period of time.  It postulates how the fluttering of a butterfly's wings in one part of the world may set off currents that will grow into a hurricane in another part of it.

We can’t predict or know when there will be enough pressure, conspiring events or cumulative conditions to bring about the butterfly effect for us.  But progress requires active involvement.

We have strength in numbers, but some patient advocates have called out pain sufferers, questioning where our support and voices of protest have been thus far.  That’s a fairly untapped opportunity.

If we want pain reform, it will take a critical mass of us calling for it.  Pragmatically, we can help build momentum and heighten the pressure for change quicker by supporting and working with current pain advocacy groups.

We have literally dozens of advocacy organizations, but ironically they lack organization.  Each represents a piece of the broader issue -- yet their efforts haven’t coalesced enough around a single goal or goals to gain substantial traction.

If you’re wondering what part you can play or where to put your limited energies, let’s look at some current opportunities.

Step #1

The oldest patient advocacy group, the American Chronic Pain Association, had a seat on a CDC advisory committee when the opioid prescribing guidelines were created.  But somehow that opportunity for active influence was reduced to a complicit check the box activity.

What can we do to call for better representation from such pain advocacy groups?  The well articulated comments that we write among ourselves could be leveraged to that end.  Copy, paste and send them to all national pain advocacy groups, starting with ACPA. Many of these organizations and their e-mail addresses are available by clicking here.  

Get involved.  Raise your concerns.  Urge all of their leaders to rally behind one unifying message for impact.  Ask them to recruit a spokesperson to give pain a face/voice (celebrity, athlete, or public/professional figure), devise ramped-up media and funding strategies, and enlist savvy lobbyists and lawyers.

If each of us would send out 5 letters, e-mails, or make 5 phone calls a week to a different advocacy group each week, we’d reach them all in just 8 weeks. 

Step #2

Have you heard of the LifeBOAT Act? Its legislation that would tax opioid pain medications, introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, and co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, along with one independent, Angus King of Maine.

The legislation is a reverse Robin Hood version of robbery.  Lacking conscience, the LifeBOAT Act would take money from pain patients by punishing them for their medical misfortune.  In turn, an estimated $2 billion of our tax dollars would be given to favored addiction treatment centers to treat opioid addicts.

If you feel strongly about the injustice of this tax, email or call the senators’ offices with your reasoned, opposing comments:

Step #3

The American Medical Association (AMA) recently decided to pass the hot potato by voting in favor of efforts to remove pain as a vital sign in professional medical standards, as well as disconnecting patient satisfaction scores from questions involving pain care in hospitals.

If this setback for pain sufferers pushes your buttons, you can call the AMA at (800) 621-8335 and let them know how you fell.

Step #4

September is National Pain Month, a good time to contact your local media and get them to cover our side of the pain story.  Press kits are readily available from some advocacy groups for this purpose.

Step #5

Our small efforts can quicken the overall cumulative effect, while giving us a personal and purposeful outlet.  A few more examples include:

  • Join advocacy and social media groups (like Facebook) to understand their missions and volunteer for their initiatives
  • Urge advocacy groups to get more media coverage of our side of the pain/opioid story
  • Endorsing petitions sent out on our behalf
  • Spreading the word and soliciting the help of family and friends

The Scottish writer W. H. Murray wrote this about the power of commitment: 

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.”

By making a personal commitment on some level, each of us can contribute in ways that our physical limitations will allow. 

Pat Akerberg suffers from trigeminal neuralgia, a rare facial pain disorder. Pat is a member of the TNA Facial Pain Association and is a supporter of the Trigeminal Neuralgia Research Foundation.

Pat draws from her extensive background as an organizational effectiveness consultant who coached and developed top executives, mobilized change initiatives, and directed communications.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It 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.

Are the CDC Opioid Guidelines Really Voluntary?

By Pat Anson, Editor

When is a medical guideline voluntary and when does it become a “standard of practice” that doctors are expected to follow?

That is one of the key questions in the ongoing debate over controversial guidelines for opioid prescribing unveiled last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The draft guidelines recommend “non-pharmacological therapy” and other types of pain relievers as preferred treatments for chronic non-cancer pain. Smaller doses and quantities of opioids are also recommended when the drugs are used to treat acute or chronic pain.  A complete list of the guidelines can be found here.

The CDC says the guidelines are needed to help primary care providers. Many lack adequate training in pain management and opioid prescribing, yet they treat the vast majority of chronic pain patients.

“It’s important to note that CDC is not a regulatory agency, unlike the Food and Drug Administration.  Physicians are not required to use the guideline, instead it is intended to support informed clinical decision making regarding the provision of safer, more effective pain treatment for patients,” said Courtney Leland, a spokesperson for the CDC.

But the CDC’s own internal documents make clear that the agency’s ultimate goal is for the guidelines to be widely adopted.

“Efforts are required to disseminate the guideline and achieve widespread adoption and implementation of the recommendations in clinical settings,” the agency says in briefing papers obtained by Pain News Network.  “CDC is dedicated to translating this guideline into user-friendly materials for distribution and use by health systems, medical professional societies, insurers, public health departments, health information technology developers, and providers, and engaging in dissemination efforts.”

“Clearly the intent of CDC is that the guideline be distributed to and adopted by state public health entities and certifying organizations as if it had the legal authority of a regulation,” a representative with the American Cancer Society wrote in a recent letter to CDC Director Tom Frieden.  

The letter said the American Cancer Society “cannot endorse the proposed guidelines in any way” because they “have the potential to significantly limit cancer patient access to needed pain medicines.”

Experts and patient advocacy organizations say the guidelines – voluntary or not – could quickly be adopted by state licensing boards and have a chilling effect on doctors who prescribe opioids.

“If a healthcare provider receives correspondence from the CDC, the assumption can be made that more often than not, the healthcare provider will consider such correspondence relevant and necessary to follow so as to not face any backlash from the CDC or similar agency,” said Shaina Smith, Director of State Policy and Advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation, one of the nation’s largest patient advocacy organizations.

“A guideline coming from CDC will be viewed as having a stronger pedigree than a guideline coming from a professional society or other source, and will thus be more likely to be adopted as reflecting a standard of practice, or adopted as a rule by state licensing boards,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the American Academy of Pain Management.

Once in place, Twillman says a guideline or rule could be used in court by a disgruntled patient to challenge the competency of their doctor.

“If a prescriber is sued, one of the things that will be raised at trial is whether or not the prescriber demonstrated that the care provided conforms to the standard of practice. Standard of practice is a bit of an ill-defined term, but I can guarantee you that one question that would be asked in making this determination is, ‘Did you, or did you not, provide care that conforms to the most up-to-date and evidence-based guidelines?’ Any prescriber who can’t show that the care in question conformed to guidelines is going to be in a world of hurt,” Twillman wrote in an email to Pain News Network.

“It can get further complicated because guidelines also come up in disciplinary hearings by licensing boards and other agencies. Again, the same question will be asked, and again, a prescriber whose treatment does not conform to guidelines will be in jeopardy.”

Guidelines Can Become Laws

Twillman says there are precedents for guidelines to turn into laws. Such was the case in Washington State in 2007, when the Agency Medical Director’s Group (AMDG) adopted what was then the nation’s toughest guidelines for physicians who treat pain and prescribe opioids. In 2010, Washington’s Governor signed many of those same guidelines into law, the first in the world to set specific dosing levels for opioids.

Interestingly, two key members of the AMDG were Drs. Gary Franklin and David Tauben, who now sit on CDC panels that are helping to develop and draft the agency’s opioid guidelines. A third CDC panelist, Dr. Jane Ballantyne, has spoken at several hearings in favor of the AMDG guidelines.

Ballantyne and Franklin are the President and Vice-President, respectively, of an advocacy group called Physicians for Responsible Prescribing (PROP), which seeks to reduce the overprescribing of opioid pain medication. Tauben is a board member of PROP, as are two other CDC panelists providing input on the opioid guidelines.

The CDC says it is only fulfilling its mandate to protect the public from a serious health issue.

“Although CDC has not previously issued guidelines on opioid prescribing, we have consulted on and supported guideline development by professional organizations,” said the CDC’s Leland, citing as an example guidelines developed by the American College of Emergency Physicians on the use of opioids in hospital emergency rooms.

“CDC is the nation's health protection agency, operating to strengthen our nation’s public health systems. One way we do this is by developing and issuing guidelines and recommendations on any number of health issues, including those guiding clinical practice,” Leland added. “Prescription drug abuse and overdose is a serious public health issue and improving the way opioids are prescribed through clinical practice guidelines can ensure patients have access to safer, more effective chronic pain treatment while reducing the number of people who misuse, abuse, or overdose.”

Leland says the agency is currently revising its draft opioid guidelines – after getting input from healthcare providers and some patients – and remains on track to finalize and release the guidelines in January 2016.