An Epidemic of Fake Opioid News

By Roger Chriss, Guest Columnist

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study called “Opioid-Prescribing Patterns of Emergency Physicians and Risk of Long-Term Use.” It looked retrospectively at Medicare patients and found that some emergency room physicians prescribed up to three times more opioids than others did.

The article did not even mention words such as “abuse” or “addiction” in any context. Moreover, the data was for the period between 2008 and 2011, long before the 2016 CDC opioid guidelines or the various efforts by the FDA, DEA and state governments to restrict opioid prescribing.

The result of this study has been a surprising explosion of fake news about the opioid crisis. It is almost ironic that the spread of this news looks more like an epidemic than the actual opioid crisis does.

The New York Times published the article "Long-Term Opioid Use Could Depend on the Doctor Who First Prescribed It” on February 15, marking the first step in the outbreak of this new opioid meme.

The article noted that the study looked at elderly people in the opening paragraph, but did not mention the decline in opioid prescribing between the study period and the present.

Moreover, the article stated that "as the opioid epidemic continues to devastate communities around the country, the study was the latest attempt to identify a starting point on the path to excessive use.” This was stated despite the fact that all the study showed is that people who take opioids are more likely to become dependent or addicted to them. Clearly this result is both axiomatic and not a priori interesting.

A day later there were more articles, such as “Physicians’ opioid prescribing patterns linked to patients’ risk for long-term drug use” from the Harvard School of Public Health and “How Long You Stay On Opioids May Depend On The Doctor You See In the E.R.” from the Kaiser Family Foundation.  

Both articles add more drama to the study’s results, though each does mention that the study was done on Medicare patients. Oddly, the Harvard article waited until almost the very end to tell us that, as if this is an incidental point with respect to the study and its results.

On February 16, the fake news took a turn toward the dramatic and dire. The Chicago Tribune came up with an article called "Your ER doctor could determine your likelihood of long-term opioid use."  We are told that "physicians are often reluctant to change treatment regimens when patients are happy with what they have,” as an explanation for why doctors were resisting not prescribing opioids.

Vox took the fake news to a whole new level with an article called "Certain doctors are more likely to create opioid addicts. Understanding why is key to solving the crisis."  The Vox reporter provides a quote from the lead author of the study:

“'For patients, Barnett said the message is clear: “Patients should ask their physicians, ‘What are the side effects of me taking this opioid and do you think my pain could be treated effectively [another way], because I know how dangerous these medicines can be."

Opioids have now become dangerous medications.

Now imagine that the first headline from The New York Times had said “Medicare Patients Receive Different Amounts of Pain Medication depending on ER Physician.” That would be a fair a description of what was reported in the original NEJM article.

And consider this alternate interpretation of The Chicago Tribune quote about happy patients: These patients are elderly, at low-risk of addiction, and being treated successfully with a well-known medication. This is not something to worry about, especially since the opioid crisis is being driven by illicit substances used primarily by younger people and outside of medical settings.

Forgotten in all of this reporting is the data from the CDC and other government agencies, which clearly shows that opioid prescribing is down considerably compared to just a few years ago, while at the same time the number of overdoses and deaths involving opioids used illicitly has risen.

The data also shows that most people who abuse opioids are young, not elderly. In other words, physician prescribing is not a major driver in the opioid crisis and Medicare patients are not representative of substance abusers at all.

In a matter of days, an article in a respected medical journal describing a retrospective study of the Medicare population has morphed into some doctors being more likely than others to create opioid addicts and unlucky patients are getting hooked.

This is an epidemic spread of fake news, of a dangerous meme, and of a new challenge for chronic and intractable pain patients. Accurate information is the best defense, but that takes work.

Roger Chriss suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome. Roger is from Washington state, where he works as a technical consultant who specializes in mathematics and research.

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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.

Survey: Painkillers Bigger Problem than Alcohol

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new poll is adding further fuel to the fire over opioid abuse and the disproportionate amount of attention it gets compared to other health problems.

The survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that two-thirds of Americans consider the abuse of opioid pain medication an extremely or very serious problem. And four out of ten said they knew someone who was addicted to prescription painkillers, often a close friend or family member.

The problem is so serious that more Americans now consider painkillers a bigger problem than alcohol (66% vs. 57%), even though four times as many Americans die from alcohol related causes than from opioids.

Nearly 19,000 Americans died from prescription opioids in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institutes of Health estimates 88,000 people die annually from alcohol related causes.

Alcohol misuse is also estimated by NIH to cost the U.S. economy nearly $250 billion annually, while the “economic burden” of opioid abuse was estimated by the DEA at $53 billion in 2011.   

The Kaiser Foundation poll comes in the middle of an election season, as the White House and Congress consider various funding measures to address the so-called epidemic of opioid abuse and addiction.

The survey found that a large majority of Americans believe federal and state governments, doctors, and individuals who use prescription opioids are not doing enough to fight opioid addiction. Only about a third said police officers weren’t doing enough to enforce drug laws, a sign that many Americans don’t consider opioid abuse just a law enforcement issue.

Asked which policy efforts would be very or somewhat effective in reducing opioid abuse, over eight in ten said doctors and medical students should have better training in pain management and that there should be increased access to addiction treatment programs.  Less than half said putting warning labels on prescription opioids explaining the risk of addiction would be effective. Respondents were not asked if access to opioid pain medication should be reduced.

Policies Rated Very or Somewhat Effective in Fighting Opioid Abuse

  • 88% Increase pain management training
  • 86% Increase access to addiction treatment
  • 84% Public education and awareness programs
  • 83% Increase research about pain and pain management
  • 82% Monitor doctors’ prescribing habits
  • 63% Encourage disposal of extra pain meds
  • 60% Reduce stigma of opioid addiction
  • 48% Put addiction warning labels on opioid bottles

Putting the issue in perspective, while most Americans consider painkiller abuse a serious problem, the issue ranks well behind several other health problems such as cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Health Problems Considered Extremely or Very Serious

  • 86% Cancer
  • 78% Diabetes
  • 74% Lack of access to mental healthcare
  • 73% Obesity
  • 72% Heart disease
  • 71% Contaminated drinking water
  • 70% Heroin abuse
  • 66% Painkiller abuse
  • 61% Lack of access to healthcare
  • 57% Environmental contamination
  • 57% Alcohol abuse
  • 54% Lack of access to affordable food

The Kaiser Foundation survey was conducted in mid-April in a random telephone sample of 1,201 American adults. The poll is estimated to have a sampling error of 3 percent.

To see the complete results of the Kaiser poll, click here.

Most Americans Touched by Opioid Abuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

Over half of Americans say they know someone who has abused, been addicted to, or died from an overdose of opioid pain medication, according to a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The survey also found a surprising awareness among many Americans that it is easier for abusers to get access to opioids than it is for pain sufferers. Three out of four (77%) believe it is easy for people to get access to prescription opioids without a prescription.  

“The perception among the public is that the balance is currently in the abuser’s favor. More of the public says it’s easy for people to get access to painkillers not prescribed to them than say it is easy for people who medically need them,” the Kaiser report says.

Over half (58%) of Americans believe it is very easy or somewhat easy to get prescription opioids for medical purposes.

Over a third (40%) believe it is somewhat difficult or very difficult for a patient to get an opioid prescription.

Kaiser surveyed over 1,350 Americans adults by telephone in mid-November for its monthly tracking poll. For the first time the survey included questions about the public’s awareness and attitude about painkiller abuse.

The survey found that whites were far more likely than African-Americans or Hispanics to have a “personal connection” to the abuse of opioids. Nearly two thirds (63%) of whites said they know someone who has abused, been addicted to, or died from an overdose of painkillers. That compares to 44% of African-Americans and 37% of Hispanics.

That finding appears to support evidence of a surprising spike in the death rate of middle aged white Americans that was uncovered by two Princeton University researchers. They estimate that nearly half a million white baby boomers died early between 1999 and 2013, coinciding with a spike in the prescribing of opioid painkillers. Financial stress, pain and disability are also believed to have played a role in the those deaths.

Other findings in the Kaiser survey:

  • 16% of Americans know someone who has died from a prescription opioid overdose
  • 9% know a family member or close friend who died from an opioid overdose
  • 27% know someone who has been addicted to opioids
  • 2% admit they are addicted to opioids  
  • 45% know someone who has taken an opioid not prescribed for them
  • 6% admit taking an opioid not prescribed for them

The survey also found that the public was divided over the role government should have in addressing prescription painkiller abuse. Over a third (36%) believe the federal government should be primarily responsible, while 39% believe state government and 16% believe local government should be responsible for solving the problem.