Sen. Wyden Wants to Censor Pain Experts’ Opinions

By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist

In 2016, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) created an advisory panel called the Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force and charged it to “develop a set of best practices for chronic and acute pain management and prescribing pain medication.”

The task force has just released its first draft report that makes several recommendations. One is to update the scientific evidence on which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s controversial 2016 Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain was based. Another goal is to expand areas already included in the guideline.

On December 18, 2018, just before the report was published, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D) wrote a letter to Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). In it, he questioned the ability of several experts to serve impartially on the task force because of their alleged connections to the pharmaceutical industry. Specifically, Sen. Wyden worried that opioid manufacturers could exert “financial influence” on those task force members.

Wyden’s concerns about the HHS’s vetting practices would be understandable if the individuals who had been appointed to the advisory panel actually were receiving funds directly from industry. However, that is not the case.

Wyden’s letter specifically mentions Dr. Jianguo Cheng, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM), and Dr. Rollin Gallagher, editor-in-chief of the journal Pain Medicine.

In his letter, Wyden opposes Drs. Cheng and Gallagher’s participation primarily because of their association with AAPM, a professional medical organization that has registered concerns about the impact of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guideline on people in chronic pain.

Dr. Josh Bloom, the American Council on Science and Health’s Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, recently shared written communications from Drs. Cheng and Gallagher that make it difficult to see any logical reason to object to their participation on the panel.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR)

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR)

Since he became president-elect of the AAPM at the end of 2016, Dr. Cheng has had no financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Similarly, to ensure Pain Medicine’s editorial independence, Dr. Gallagher voluntarily ended his relationships — consulting or advisory— with the industry when he became editor-in-chief more than 10 years ago.

Ironically, the AAPM has long advocated for alternatives to opioids and generally supported the CDC guideline. However, they did have concerns about lack of evidence for some of the CDC’s recommendations. Other organizations, including the American Medical Association (AMA), have also criticized components of the CDC guideline.

Wyden has previously lodged a similar complaint with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, also challenging members selected for an FDA advisory panel because of a perceived conflict of interest. Following his complaint, Dr. Mary Lynn McPherson, professor at Maryland University School of Medicine, and Dr. Gregory Terman, who was the president of the American Pain Society, were removed from the panel. Here again, neither Dr. McPherson nor Dr. Terman personally received funds from Pharma. The University of Maryland and the American Pain Society, with which they were associated, did.

If Wyden’s reasoning were taken to its logical conclusion, no member of the AMA or any professional organization of pain experts critical of the CDC opioid guideline would be an acceptable member of the advisory panel. Also, most university faculty members would be disqualified because their universities accept funding, in one form or another, from industry.

Some people assume that any association with industry must create bias and cause conflicts of interest. Perhaps so, but that does not apply to the people Wyden is trying to silence. Further, membership in a professional association or serving as a faculty member of a university that receives industry support should not necessarily disqualify an individual to make an important contribution to committees. The goal should be to seek out the most qualified individuals.

There is danger associated with Wyden’s persistent efforts to purge advisory panels of members who have expressed views he doesn’t share. In essence, eliminating people with differing views from advisory panels stacks the deck. It creates a special-interest group that is empowered to influence policy without having to consider differing opinions. The irony is that this very attempt to limit bias creates bias.

Prohibiting experts with no direct connections to industries, like Drs. Cheng, Gallagher, McPherson and Teman, from participating on advisory panels seems to be a punitive gesture. Physicians and researchers, such as these four individuals, who actually care for patients are uniquely equipped to help advisory committees set best practices for pain management. And these panels cannot afford to lose the expertise that these individuals can provide.

If the vetting process includes removing all potential conflicts of interest, then it should also flag anyone who has ties to insurance, including Medicare. Clearly, insurance companies have a financial interest in which treatments are recommended.

Today, Wyden and others are calling to ban anyone with direct or indirect ties to Pharma from serving as a government adviser. Tomorrow, another industry could be targeted. For example, people who work in energy or university researchers who receive industry grants to study the weather might not be permitted to advise the government on climate change. This would likely mean the committees would be comprised of the least knowledgeable individuals.

Hopefully, the HHS and other governmental bodies will consider viewpoints from a broad swath of qualified experts and not just those whose perspectives they endorse. A functioning democracy must value and listen to all views.  

Lynn Webster.jpg

Lynn Webster, MD, is a senior editor at Pain Medicine. He is also a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with pharmaceutical companies. Webster is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and author of “The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Prominent Pain Doctor Faces Hundreds of Lawsuits

By Pat Anson, Editor

Imagine spending your retirement defending yourself against hundreds of lawsuits in courthouses around the country – all of them alleging that you played a key role in starting the opioid crisis and that you were indirectly responsible for thousands of overdose deaths.

“It is mind boggling to me and its frightening, actually. I don’t know how I’m going to defend myself,” says Lynn Webster, MD, a pain management expert and former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “Right now, we’re just trying to keep our head above the water.”

Webster has been named as a defendent in so many class action lawsuits – along with Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Endo, Janssen and other opioid manufacturers – that he’s lost track. He knows of at least 80 lawsuits but believes there are many more.

“I think it could be several hundred,” he says.

The latest one was filed this week by Salt Lake County, Utah -- where Webster lives -- alleging that drug makers employed him in deceptive marketing practices that downplayed the risks of addiction and overdose. Like the other lawsuits by states, counties and cities, Salt Lake County seeks to recover taxpayer money spent on treating addiction, combating opioid abuse and policing opioid related crimes.    

DR. LYNN WEBSTER

DR. LYNN WEBSTER

“Utah’s opioid crisis stems directly from a callously deceptive marketing scheme that was spearheaded by certain opioid manufacturers and perpetuated by prominent doctors they bankrolled,” the lawsuit alleges.

“Dr. Webster’s advocacy of opioids was designed to create a veneer of impartiality. But Dr. Webster was a forceful proponent of the concept of ‘pseudoaddiction,’ the notion that addictive behaviors should be seen not as a warning, but as indicators of undertreated pain. The only way to differentiate between the two, Dr. Webster claims, was to increase a patient’s dose of opioids.”

Until he retired from clinical practice in 2010, Webster operated the Lifetree Pain Clinic in Salt Lake City. The lawsuit makes a point of mentioning that at least 20 of Webster’s patients died from overdoses and that he was investigated – but never charged with a crime -- by the DEA and the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.

“Most of what they have in there, at least about me, is false. And I think I can prove that,” Webster told PNN.

A footnote in the lawsuit contains the curious but important disclaimer that “Salt Lake County asserts no claim against Dr. Webster arising from his medical practice. The claims against Dr. Webster relate solely to his participation, as a KOL and otherwise, in Manufacturing Defendants deceptive marketing campaign.”

'Key Opinion Leader'

KOL is an acronym for “key opinion leader” – a euphemism for doctors alleged to be so influential that they helped convince other physicians to prescribe more opioids. Webster and three other pain doctors -- Russell Portenoy, Perry Fine and Scott Fishman -- are portrayed in the lawsuits as KOLs who greedily accepted millions of dollars in payments from drug makers in return for their promotion of opioids.

“It's mind boggling to think how four individuals can be accountable for essentially brainwashing all of the doctors in the country to do something intentionally to make pharmaceutical countries rich. How can anyone think that is plausible? It’s crazy,” says Webster. “Most of the pharmaceutical companies that they’ve listed I never received a dime from.”

According to the Salt Lake County lawsuit, Webster was “handsomely rewarded for his efforts,” receiving nearly $2 million from opioid manufacturers from 2009 to 2013. Webster says that dollar amount is unfair and misleading because most of it stems from his work as a researcher. He is currently Vice President of Scientific Affairs at PRA Health Sciences, a clinical research company.

“If you’re a principal investigator in a research program that has contracted with a pharmaceutical company, that money goes under your name. But its money to conduct a trial. Not a penny of it goes to me,” says Webster. “I have received compensation for consultant work and advisory boards. My consultant work is because of my area of expertise. That’s not unusual. And I do not speak for a company’s product. I do not benefit at all because I personally have no shares in any pharmaceutical company.”

Since retiring from clinical practice, Webster has become an outspoken critic of efforts by the government and insurance industry to limit opioid prescribing -- which he believes have gone too far and unfairly punish pain patients, while ignoring the larger issue of illicit fentanyl, heroin and other black market drugs.

He's written a book, called "The Painful Truth" and self-financed a PBS documentary by the same name.  Webster also comments frequently on PNN about opioid related issues.

With so many lawsuits hanging over him, Webster’s financial future is uncertain.  He says he and his fellow KOLs could be bankrupted by legal fees before any of the lawsuits come to trial.

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“We don’t have any big pocket that’s going to pay for anything,” he said. “If a jury decided to award money from us, they wouldn’t get any money, because there is no money. We would be all bankrupt by the time we got to court.”

Drug makers, on the other hand, do have big pockets. And during the 1990’s many of the same law firms now involved in opioid litigation helped win big settlements with the tobacco industry worth upwards of $200 billion.  That includes the law firm of Hagens Berman, which is handling the Salt Lake County lawsuit. The firm also represents the city of Seattle in a nearly identical lawsuit against opioid makers, in which Webster is named as a KOL.

Webster is also named in a string of lawsuits filed by the law firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy, which represents dozens of states, counties and cities. Simmons will pocket one-third of the proceeds from any opioid settlement,  which could run into hundreds of billions of dollars.

Simmons is well connected politically, having donated $219,000 to the re-election campaign of Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), who coincidentally released a report in February that's highly critical of patient advocacy groups and medical associations for accepting money from opioid manufacturers.

It is against these political, financial and legal forces that Webster must find a way to defend himself.

“The body of the allegations are inaccurate, misleading and irresponsibly paint a picture which ignores the realities of Dr. Webster’s compassionate commitment to alleviating suffering in his chronic pain patients,” Peter Striba, Webster’s attorney, wrote in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune. “It is estimated that there are approximately one-hundred million chronic pain patients in our Country, and it is very telling that their suffering and their medical condition is entirely absent in the narrative of the Complaint.” 

Pain Documentary Producer Responds to STAT News

(Editor’s note: STAT News recently published an article about “The Painful Truth” documentary, which is currently airing on some public television stations. The article was critical of the doctor who produced the program for not disclosing that he had “significant financial ties” to the pharmaceutical industry. Dr. Lynn Webster asked STAT for an opportunity to respond to the article, but the site’s managing editor did not agree with Webster’s contention that the article was unfair and that it misrepresented his documentary. Below is the rebuttal column Webster sent to STAT.)  

By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist

In STAT News, David Armstrong's article on March 24, "TV documentary on pain treatment funded by doctor with industry ties," misrepresented the purpose of the film, ignored several of my detailed answers to his questions, and unfairly criticized my professional associations.

Armstrong suggested that the TV documentary downplayed the role of Pharma’s contribution to the opioid problem. It didn’t, nor did it advocate for the use of any drugs, including opioids, because that was not the purpose of the film.

Rather, it focused on the lack of compassion and treatment for people in pain, and it shed light on the largest public health problem in America: chronic pain.

The STAT News article states, “Also criticized is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which last year issued voluntary guidelines that advise doctors that the use of non-opioid treatment is preferred for chronic pain.” Yes, the CDC is criticized in the documentary, but not because it recommends non-opioid treatments. It's criticized because the CDC guidelines have caused many patients to lose access to pain management.

The article inaccurately states that I want opioids to be “the rule” of pain management.  I never said any such thing. As I told Armstrong, I consider opioids to be imperfect analgesics, at best, and I emphasized how critical it is that we develop and research drugs and treatments that will eliminate the need for opioids. I also explained that our current opioid crisis is largely due to lack of insurance coverage for alternatives to opioids.

The documentary clearly advocates for a multi-discipline treatment and favorably shows a clinic where patients get such treatment including bio-feedback, and occupational therapy. It also chronicles the story of NFL football player, Hal Garner, whose life was destroyed by opioids. Given this, it is hard to see how one could conclude the film advocates for opioid therapy.

Armstrong seemed to be most concerned that my professional work with the pharmaceutical industry had somehow influenced the messages in the show. In reality, my wife and I committed to funding the documentary ourselves. We accepted no corporate sponsorship because we wanted the freedom to share the truth of these stories from the patients' point of view, and not from the perspective of pharma, regulators, or insurance.

Publishing the amount of money associated with my research misleads readers into thinking I personally received those funds. I did not. The research dollars received from Pharma were grants for clinical studies conducted by the research company where I was employed. The government requires the funds to be reported under my name since I was the principal investigator for the studies, but I am not a personal recipient of these grants. I clearly explained that to Armstrong when he asked me about those specific funds.

I am currently working with several pharmaceutical companies with the potential to develop game-changing innovations. We are making headway in creating pain medicines that will be as powerful as opioids but will have almost no addiction potential and/or risk of overdose. We need Pharma’s involvement for these advances to occur, and that is why I work with them. I'm deeply grateful that I have the training and experience to contribute something of value to society. My ability to conduct comprehensive medical research enables me to help the community of people living with pain as well as those living with addiction.

Armstrong’s article, filled with criticism as it is, ironically shows why it was important to produce the documentary. It illustrates how opioids are such a volatile topic that anyone associated with them - whether it's a researcher, Pharma, or patients with pain - are subject to censure, antipathy, and bias.

The film attempted to give people in pain a voice. The painful truth is that they have been voiceless and continue to be victims in a broken healthcare system.

Lynn Webster, MD, is vice president of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences and a former President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. He is the author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary of the same name.

You can follow Dr. Webster on his blog, and on Twitter @LynnRWebsterMD, Facebook and LinkedIn.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

PBS Documentary Brings Chronic Pain Out of Shadows

By Pat Anson, Editor

Many chronic pain sufferers are frustrated with how they are depicted in the media – often as lazy, whining, drug seeking addicts.

A new documentary that's begun airing on local PBS stations is trying to change that narrative.

“I wanted to give a voice to people who live in the shadows. People in pain are often ignored and treated as outcasts or druggies,” says Lynn Webster, MD, a leading expert on pain management, past President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, and co-producer of “The Painful Truth”

LYNN WEBSTER, MD

LYNN WEBSTER, MD

“The film tries to demonstrate the lack of humanity that exists today towards people in pain. It also reveals some of flaws in our public policy that has contributed to the current pain and addiction crisis. I hope that the film will be a seed for a cultural transformation in attitudes and respect for the most hurting among us.”

The hour-long documentary is a sequel to Webster’s 2015 award-winning book, The Painful Truth, in which he shares the personal stories of chronic pain patients he treated for over 30 years in the Salt Lake City, Utah area. 

Webster may be retired now as a practicing physician, but he’s determined to have pain sufferers treated with more compassion and respect, not only by the media, but by government, regulators, insurers and their own doctors.

“I've had patients who begged me for alternatives to opioids when their insurance wouldn't cover anything else that would give them relief,” says Webster. “I've had patients who could not find a respite from their pain and chose to end their suffering by taking their own life. I've cried with, and comforted, the caregivers of my patients, people who are on the front lines every single day doing everything they can to help their loved ones regain the life they once knew.”

Webster and co-producer Craig Worth traveled over 70,000 miles gathering stories from patients and documenting their daily struggles. They also interviewed caretakers, doctors, patient advocates, addiction specialists and law enforcement officers.

The Painful Truth has already aired in a number of markets. For a listing of PBS stations and air dates, click here.  

The documentary can also be watched online, courtesy of PBS in Montana, by clicking here.

Webster is encouraging pain sufferers to reach out to their local PBS stations and ask them to broadcast The Painful Truth. He says when documentaries air on local public television, it is common for the host station to include a panel discussion with community members.

“If your local public station decides to air this documentary and you would be willing to make yourself available for a panel discussion, I would encourage you to reach out to your station to offer your participation. It could be a great opportunity to discuss how important it is to transform the way pain is perceived, judge and treated,” Webster says.

“I am realistic about the film. It won't be the solution, but it may open some eyes and more importantly some hearts that could result in better pain care in America.”

For a preview of The Painful Truth, watch the clip below:

Surgeon General Launches Anti-Opioid Campaign

By Pat Anson, Editor

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, has partnered with two non-profit health organizations in an ambitious and unusual campaign against the abuse of prescription opioids.

Murthy is taking the unprecedented step of sending a letter to 2.3 million physicians and prescribers, asking them to take a pledge to “turn the tide” against opioid abuse. Included in the letter is a “pocket card” that summarizes guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

“Years from now, I want us to look back and know that, in the face of a crisis that threatened our nation, it was our profession that stepped up and led the way. I know we can succeed because health care is more than an occupation to us. It is a calling rooted in empathy, science, and service to humanity,” Murthy says in the letter.

The two-page pocket card generally follows the CDC guidelines, stating that opioids only provide short-term benefits for moderate to severe pain and that "scientific evidence is lacking" for opioids to treat chronic pain.

“In general, do not prescribe opioids as the first-line treatment for chronic pain,” the pocket card states.

The card also urges physicians to prescribe no more than a 3-day supply of opioids for acute pain and to “avoid” prescribing doses of more than 90 mg (morphine equivalent) a day. 

surgeon general vivek murthy, MD

surgeon general vivek murthy, MD

To take the pledge, physicians are asked to visit TurnTheTideRx.org and promise to educate themselves about treating pain safely and effectively; to screen patients for “opioid use disorder” and provide them access to treatment; and to talk about addiction “as a chronic illness, not a moral failing.”  

Physicians are also asked to give their full names, zip code and an email address to “stay connected” with the Turn The Tide campaign. The website was created in partnership with Public Health Foundation Enterprises and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

“The Surgeon General realized that in order to raise awareness and reach people in all communities, he wanted to partner with non-profits that were in the public health space to help advance the messaging around the opioid crisis in the United States,” said Blayne Cutler, MD, president and CEO of Public Health Foundation Enterprises. 

“We thought it was a very important campaign because the data surrounding opioid addiction in this country has been very concerning and worsening over time. This is one of the few areas in public health where we see the number going in the wrong direction.”

No Mention of Fentanyl Crisis

Murthy's letter and the website focus exclusively on prescription opioids and don’t even mention opioid overdoses caused by heroin or the surge in illicit fentanyl deaths now sweeping the country, which the DEA has called an unprecedented crisis. Some states have reported over half of their overdoses are now caused by fentanyl.

In explaining the omission, Cutler said Murthy wanted to focus on how people are introduced to opioids and how they become addicted.

“He’s taking a broad look at how prescribers are thinking about opioids in the context of their patients and what can we do to make sure we effectively treat pain and also make sure we are doing no harm in that process. So it’s a tricky balance,” Cutler told Pain News Network.

“Blaming prescription opioid prescribing for all the overdoses is not going to help solve the problem,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “Of course every unintentional or accidental overdose is a tragedy beyond belief but so are the suicides by people who have been told they can no longer receive opioids for their pain.  

“Why do we ignore the people in pain? Most overdoses are not people recently prescribed an opioid. It is very harmful to send a message to providers that doesn't reflect the honest crisis that exists.” 

Webster says he receives an email nearly every day from a pain patient crying for help because a physician has already taken them off opioids or lowered their dose.

“Dr. Murthy will worsen this crisis with his letter,” Webster said in an email to PNN. “Abandonment is not humane. I know he is well intended but he obviously doesn't understand the crisis.”

The Painful Truth: How Patients Are Treated Shamefully

Lynn Webster, MD, is past President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, vice president of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences, and one the world’s leading experts on pain management. He treated people with chronic pain for more than 30 years in the Salt Lake City, Utah area.

Dr. Webster’s new book, “The Painful Truth,” is a collection of stories involving several of his former patients, who struggled with the physical, emotional and financial toll that many chronic pain sufferers experience.  

Pain News Network editor Pat Anson recently spoke with Dr. Webster about his book.

The interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Dr. Lynn webster

Dr. Lynn webster

Anson: Dr. Webster, you’re no longer practicing medicine, but you’re still very involved in the pain community and in research. Why write this book now at this stage of your career?

Webster: It takes a lot of time to write a book, as you can imagine, and it’s taken me four years to get to this point.  I think that at this stage in my career I can look back and put together a story about the people who I’ve taken care of for most of my career that I’m not sure I could’ve done in the middle of it. I think that’s given me the ability to look back and reflect and feel the heartache that patients have, and my inability to deliver to them everything that I wanted to deliver to them, because of all of the barriers and obstacles in healthcare.

I’m hoping that my book is going to be a seed that will contribute to a cultural change, a social movement that will bring some dignity and humanity to a large population of our country.

Anson: In your book you said the painful truth is that people in pain are treated shamefully. What did you mean by that?

Webster: When I was growing up on a farm I observed something as a young boy that always puzzled me and that was watching the injured or sick animals. We had all sorts of animals; cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, and I could see that the injured somehow were always separated from the healthy ones. It wasn’t that the sick separated themselves from the healthy, but the healthy separated themselves from the injured or the ill.

I see that to some degree in people and I wonder if this hasn’t been a biological aspect of survival for man from the beginning. We as humans are better than that; we’re better than we may have been thousands of years ago.

Today, I think that it is shameful that people are stigmatized because they have pain, they’re isolated, and they’re denigrated often. Because of our healthcare system, at least in this country, they’re viewed as addicts, lowlife’s, and druggies. That’s rarely true and it absolutely prevents, it really contributes to the harm that pain sufferers feel towards themselves and their inability to get the type of care they need. I think that it hurts our society in so many different ways, but most importantly the people in pain.

Anson: A lot of your book is dedicated to telling the stories of some of the pain patients that you treated. Virtually every one went through what you just described, where they had trouble getting proper treatment, they had trouble with their jobs, with their families, and with their friends. Is that why you write the book in this way, so that their stories get across the point you’re trying to make?

Webster: Absolutely. It’s less important that a physician tells a story than a patient tells their story. I wanted this book to be felt by the readers, to understand what people in pain experience and the struggles they have.

Anson: You wrote that, “People in pain need to be both treated by medical professionals and supported by all the important people in their lives.” Is that happening?

Webster: No, of course not. There are some patients that have pain who have great support structures in their personal life. For example Alison, she is an individual who had what I thought was the quintessential family support. Were it not for her mother, father and sister, she could’ve gone down the path that too many others take, which would be resignation rather than resilience. It’s one where drugs are used to cope and to escape the pain, physical but also the emotional.

Too many people are separated and too few have the structure of the support system that Alison had.  Our healthcare system is abominable. It shamelessly abandons them with limited resources, limited access and actually a labeling of the individual as if they’re a leper; they have a disease that is contagious.

Anson: Is the average physician in U.S. prepared to treat chronic pain?

Webster: No. I think it’s been reported that medical schools average less than 10 hours of education on pain and even less for addiction. Yet this is the number one public health problem in America and it’s not recognized by the CDC like many other disease states have been.

And so very few physicians understand what pain is. In fact, many think that it’s just a symptom and you never die from pain which is categorically wrong. As I write in my book, pain can be as malignant as any cancer and it can be just as devastating. It can take the soul but it also takes the life of some individuals when we ignore it and when we’re unable to provide them the relief that they deserve.

Anson: If you were a young man again in medical school and trying to decide what specialty to go into, knowing what you know today, would you go into pain medicine?

Webster: Without a doubt, there is no hesitancy in this response; I love the field that I’ve been in. As an anesthesiologist I could’ve stayed in the operating room and honestly the compensation of doing that would have been far better than the path that I chose. But the rewards I’ve received from trying to make a difference and the thank you’s that I’ve received will never be matched by any kind of financial or professional recognition in any other areas.

The most rewarding part of life is really to be able to make a difference in someone else’s life. And I think I’ve been able to do that with hundreds, if not thousands of individuals. That actually is the reason for the book. I’m hoping the book is going to make a difference for more people than I could physically touch in my clinic.

Most of the people that I saw as patients were already experiencing a large amount of pain, they’ve been through the mill and many had their chronic pain for years before they came to see me. We are basically going to be taking care of them the rest of their life. We do get to know them, much like a primary care person does to a family they’ve been caring for, and so we get to know them well. They get to know us. We also begin to see the struggles that they have in the system and with the rejection of their families sometimes, their friends, the isolation. And we become the only source that’s grounded, that gives them potential hope. I took that very seriously and I think that’s why it was so rewarding for me.

Anson: You wrote that you’re neither pro-opioid or anti-opioid. What do you mean by that?

Webster: My focus has never been about making opioids available or that they should be used. In fact ten years ago I started the first national campaign about the risk of opioids. My campaign was called Zero Unintentional Overdose Deaths and you can still find that on the Internet. I did a lot of work at trying to understand the potential risks and mitigate those risks so we can prevent people from harm because I knew one day that if we couldn’t prevent people from being harmed from opioids that there would be political response to this that could be very harmful to a large number of people who are not harmed by opioids.

I think the focus should always be about what’s best for a patient and not about whether a drug or a certain treatment is good or bad. All treatments have potential risks and complications, and we need to evaluate whether or not the potential benefit outweighs the potential risk or harm and it has to be patient centered. So my focus has never been about really any treatment, but it’s always been about what’s best for the patient. I’m more anti-pain than I am pro or anti-opioid.

Anson: You prefer a multi-disciplinary approach to pain treatment?

Webster: Yes, it’s been demonstrated that for people with moderate to severe chronic pain, the type that’s not likely to be resolved, it is best managed in a multi-disciplinary, integrative approach. I see the need for more cognitive behavioral therapy. We should always tap into the different treatments that have low risk associated with them before we ever tap into something that has more risk, for example opioids or even interventional treatments we as anesthesiologists and some of the other pain specialists can provide.

Much about pain is really learning how to cope, how to deal with it from day to day and how to manage the stress that’s associated with it because stress augments all pain. And so it’s really important that we use all of the resources that we have to manage the pain and not just a single modality, certainly not opioids or spinal cord stimulators, but look at how we can manage this in a more mindful way, even as clinicians. I use that word intentionally because mindfulness is really what the doctor needs to use as much as the patient in order to optimize the treatment with the lowest risk.

Anson: Has the pendulum swung too far against use of opioids?

Webster: I think there’s too much focus on opioids by almost everyone. And what it has done is it’s forgotten about people. Opioids can cause a great deal of harm, we see way too many people harmed from opioids. But certainly a vast majority of people who have been exposed to opioids are not harmed by them and there are countless number of people, a huge number of individuals who have been on opioids for decades, that believe very strongly that they’ve improved their lives and they could not live without them.

I think the focus is in the wrong place. Our focus should not be on opioids and whether they should or should not be prescribed, but what is the best treatment for the patient? And if opioids are inappropriate as a pain treatment, then I say all of the anti-opioid people as well as the individuals who are interested in helping people with pain should come together and demand that we have more money invested in research so we can replace opioids entirely.

We cannot always know who’s going to have an addiction triggered by exposure. As I pointed out in my book, Rachel just went in for an appendectomy and that initial opioid that she received lead her down a serious, dreadful path because she didn’t have the social support to keep her from taking that path.

I think that the anti-opioid people and those of us who are interested in bringing some dignity and humanity to a large population of people in pain need to come together and insist that we have a Manhattan Project basically and to discover safer and more effective therapies that are not addictive.

Anson: The final version of National Pain Strategy will soon be released, with the goal of advancing pain research, healthcare and education in the U.S.  From what you’ve seen and heard so far about it, are they on the right track?

Webster: Yes, I think it’s an important step forward. I think that it brings most importantly the government into the picture, recognizing the need that we do something on a national scale and that alone is a big step forward.

It’s kind of like in my book there are three important words, “I believe you.” This is really the way the government can say, “I believe you.”  There is a problem in this country with the way in which we treat pain and the National Pain Strategy is about how they’re going to address that. Having the federal government say I believe you, there is a problem, let’s see if we can change the way pain is treated in this country is a huge step forward.

Anson: Thank you, Doctor Webster.

You can follow Dr. Webster on his blog, and on Twitter @LynnRWebsterMD, Facebook and LinkedIn.