Study: Opioids Not Always in Patient’s Best Interest

By Pat Anson, Editor

An industry funded report is calling for greater use of non-opioid medication for post-surgical pain to combat what it calls the “frightening reality” of the opioid epidemic.

The report by an expert panel convened at the Jefferson College of Population Health in Philadelphia claims that relieving a patient’s acute pain with opioids is expensive and “not always in their best interest” because it could lead to addiction.

“The added costs attributable to misuse and abuse of opioid prescriptions originating in the acute care setting are considerable. With steadily increasing numbers of surgical procedures being performed, even small increments in the percentage of chronic opioid users will create an unsustainable societal burden,” wrote lead author Janice Clark, RN, Jefferson College of Population Health.

The report also endorsed efforts to have Medicare eliminate a requirement that hospitals ask patients about the quality of their pain care in patient satisfaction surveys.

“Patient satisfaction has been associated with greater inpatient use, higher health care and prescription drug use and expenditures, and increased mortality. Clearly, giving patients what they want, or think they need, is not always in their best interest,” wrote Clark and her two co-authors.  

“There is so much wrong with this article it is hard to know where to start,” says Janice Reynolds, a patient advocate and retired nurse who specialized in pain management and oncology. She called the report “opiophobic” and unethical.

“It is unconscionable these people say the person in pain cannot say whether his pain was well managed or not,” said Reynolds. “Pain is what the person says it is, existing when he says it does.  It is subjective.  Only the person experiencing it knows if treatment was effective or not, as well as whether he was treated in a compassionate, empathic manor. “

The report’s recommendations -- which are being published in the journal of Population Health Management -- are very similar to guidelines released last month by the American Pain Society, which also promote the use of non-opioid medication for post-surgical pain.

“A wide variety of effective alternatives to opioids for pain management are available and patients need to be educated on what strategies are most appropriate for their procedure,” wrote Clark, who said in an email to Pain News Network the Jefferson College report did undergo peer review prior to publication.

The report calls for greater use of acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) and preglabin (Lyrica) for post-surgical pain, as well as an injectable bupivacaine delivery system called Exparel that was developed by Pacira Pharmaceuticals, a New Jersey drug maker. 

The report was sponsored by Pacira and the company’s vice-president of medical health sciences, Richard Scranton, MD, was one of its co-authors.

At times the report reads like a promotion for Exparel, calling it an “innovative delivery system” that achieves “effective pain relief at substantially smaller doses.”

“In the acute pain space, where patients now ask for drugs by name, there is unprecedented risk of overprescribing, overuse, and misuse—particularly of opioid drugs. Exparel is an opioid alternative with equivalent pain control that reduces the need for postsurgical opioids and devices,” the report says.

“There should have been a disclosure up front that the company sponsoring the study makes Exparel,” said Reynolds.   

There is an acknowledgement on Page 2 of the 12-page report that Pacira Pharmaceuticals sponsored it, but the company is not identified as the maker of Exparel, which accounts for virtually all of the company's revenue.

Pacira Pharmaceuticals received a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 for its off-label promotion of Exparel, which was initially only approved for pain caused by bunion or hemorrhoid surgery. The U.S. Justice Department also subpoenaed the company for documents related to its marketing and sales of Exparel. 

“These additional materials suggest an extensive promotional campaign by Pacira to promote the use of Exparel in surgical procedures other than those for which the drug has been shown safe and effective,” the FDA letter states.

Pacira filed a lawsuit against the FDA claiming its first amendment rights were being violated. In an out-of-court settlement late last year, the FDA withdrew the warning letter and Exparel’s label was updated to state that it can be used for other types of postsurgical pain. The case was widely seen as a defeat for the FDA that could greatly expand the use of off-label marketing by drug companies.

A recent story by Stat questioned whether a $285 vial of Exparel provided any better pain relief than a $3 dose of bupivacaine after knee surgery.  The article also points out that other post-operative pain studies were conducted by researchers who received funding from Pacira.