Doctor: Pain Has Never Killed Anyone

By John Hsu, MD, Guest Columnist

The opioid problem with medicine began when The Joint Commission promoted the concept that pain is the fifth vital sign, and that patients should be asked about their pain and the quality of their treatment.

Ten years ago, when my hospital was undergoing an inspection, I clearly remember the examiner chastising me about my multimodal pain therapy and her concern that it would leave patients in pain. Clearly, doctors were put on alert that they could be sued for leaving a patient in pain.

Pain as a fifth vital sign is really contraindicated. Pain has never killed anyone, but opioids killed over 29,000 Americans last year. They don’t have any vital signs.

Doctors are now at a crossroads. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has attached patient satisfaction scores to reimbursement. A patient comes to the office and demands pain meds. If the doctor prescribes pain meds, the doctor can not only lose their license, but go to jail for murder, as Dr. Lisa Tseng from Rowland Heights, CA has. Or they can risk poor patient satisfaction scores and, if they are a part of an accountable care organization (ACO), risk losing their employment.

Why are doctors burned out? Because other people have come between the doctor-patient relationship. I had a nurse tell me that she would put her 21 years in ICU up to my skills as a physician, to which I retorted that she still had to take orders from me.

This loss of respect amid the loss of autonomy is frightening.  It is one of the major complaints doctors describe when they are asked about burnout and why they are leaving medicine. The healthcare team is no longer run by the doctor. It is run by nurses from the quality review department, enforcing best practices on physicians so protocols and guidelines set up by the government are followed.

I call that evidence-less based medicine. Guidelines have destroyed the doctor-patient relationship. Does the government really have patient interests at heart or is the government really just a big micromanager? 

Perhaps the answer to the opioid problem lies with outside-the-box thinking. What if we correctly promote that pain must be present for us to live and that some pain is good?  Unlike Patrick Henry, who said “Give me liberty or give me death,” I personally would prefer to say, "Give me pain and give me liberty, but don't give me death."

Patients have a responsibility to take care of their own health. All prescriptions written by doctors and filled by pharmacists were written correctly. Yet some patients are not compliant and take too many pills. We all know we should not overeat, but 70% of the American public is obese. Humans are their own worst enemies.  Unpopular as this stance may seem, it must be mentioned that while the population of the U.S. is 324 million, 259 million opioid prescription were written in in 2012. 

The Joint Commission's edict that no patient should be in pain changed patients' expectations. Everyone expected and demanded to be pain free. But focusing on the short term discomfort experienced by those in pain ignores the long term goal of improving a patient's health.

The government (FDA, DEA, CDC and policymakers) has decided to restrict opioid prescriptions. This is logical, but does not address human nature. The end result has been that a
ddicts and patients who cannot get prescription opioids have turned to cheaper and easily attainable $5 bags of heroin. Heroin deaths have quadrupled in the last decade. In 2015, over 10,000 people died from heroin overdoses. The situation is rapidly worsening, as illicit drug makers are mixing heroin with fentanyl, which is 70 times stronger than morphine. 

The opioid conundrum has become readily apparent. Opioids may be the best treatment for pain, but they raise the risk of addiction, respiratory suppression, and death.

Cultural Shift Needed in Patient Education

The solutions needed for this dilemma include a cultural shift in the education physicians and nurses give to patients and the perception that pain is bad. We have to forsake the short term treatment of pain with opioids and look to the long term goal of preserving human life.

Let’s look at patient satisfaction scores and medical education. Studies show that when patient satisfaction scores are considered in prescribing care to patients, their care is not only more expensive, but often worse -- resulting in higher morbidity and mortality. Despite this evidence, CMS has connected patient satisfaction scores to hospital reimbursement. 

The Joint Commission has promoted an atmosphere where patients believe that they should never have to suffer pain and have the right to be “pain free.” More opioids were prescribed, but often patients demanded and even threatened doctors if they did obtain pain relief.  Doctors were accused of elder abuse and medical negligence if they did not prescribe pain medication, despite the lack of medical indications or consideration of narcotic alternatives. 

Fast forward a decade and suddenly the government realized that more addicts existed and more people were overdosing. Nearly 19,000 people died in 2014 from opioid prescription overdoses legally obtained from physicians and correctly filled by pharmacists.  The government ironically declared that doctors were to blame. 

The government could not blame patients for the problem, even though the general consensus is that patients were non-compliant with their prescribed opioid doses and shared their narcotics with family and friends.  Patients were not blamed for their actions because they vote and they reelect government officials. 

The government’s solution to the current opioid overdose epidemic was a policy change.  The FDA and CDC forced physicians to limit opioid prescriptions, and increased the difficulty of prescribing opioids by changing the scheduling of hydrocodone from Schedule III to Schedule II.  The government also began criminally prosecuting physicians for murder, even though the patient was noncompliant and overdosed on opioids. 

Why did the The Joint Commission, representing the federal government, have to get involved in medicine?  Why should a federal entity interfere with the doctor-patient relationship? It is not our fault that policies make us do certain things we believe are not in the best interest of the patient.

The Hippocratic Oath directs physicians to not allow outside influences effect their patient care decisions. I would like to see medicine practiced so that the government can no longer come between patients and their doctors. Let us amend the constitution so that there is a separation of medicine and state, just like the separation of church and state.  



John Hsu, MD, has been practicing anesthesia at 600-bed hospital inCalifornia for the past 23 years.

Dr. Hsu recently founded MedRev Pharma, a pharmaceutical development company which is developing a safer opioid that minimizes the risk of abuse, addiction and respiratory depression.  Dr. Hsu is also the Director of SBS Medical Management, a consultation service that addresses issues relating to healthcare reform policies, physician practice management, and medical devices.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:

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.

AMA Drops Pain as Vital Sign

By Pat Anson, Editor

The nation’s largest medical society is recommending that pain be removed as a “fifth vital sign” in professional medical standards – a move critics say will make it even more difficult for pain sufferers to have their pain properly diagnosed and treated.

Delegates at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association in Chicago also passed several other resolutions aimed at reducing opioid prescribing and increasing access to addiction treatment. The AMA represents over 200,000 physicians in the U.S. and is very influential in setting public health policy.

The AMA’s new president said physicians played a key role in starting the so-called opioid epidemic by overprescribing pain medication, and now must do their part to end it.

“We have taken ownership of that, and physicians have taken ownership of being part of the solution,” AMA president Andrew Gurman, MD, told Modern Healthcare.

The AMA’s main “solution” to the opioid problem is to stop asking patients about their pain.

Pain was first recognized as the fifth vital sign in the 1990's, giving pain equal status with blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature as vital signs. The policy encourages healthcare providers to ask patients about their pain.

But critics say pain is not a vital sign, but more of a symptom, and cannot be measured like a patient's temperature or blood pressure. They also claim The Joint Commission,  a non-profit that accredits hospitals and other U.S. healthcare organizations, sets pain management standards too high, which contributes to opioid overprescribing.

"Just as we now know (the) earth is not flat, we know that pain is not a vital sign. Let's remove that from the lexicon," James Milam, MD, an AMA delegate said in MedPage Today. "Whatever it's going to take to no longer include pain as a vital sign ... Let's just get rid of the whole concept and try to move on."

“I am astounded that physicians don't believe we should assess pain on a regular and ongoing basis. That is exactly what removing pain as a vital sign means,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and vice president of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences.

Webster says dropping pain as a vital sign would setback pain care three decades.

“The problem is that too many physicians and policymakers equate assessing pain with giving opioids,” he said in an email to Pain News Network. “It appears that advocates for removing pain as a 5th vital sign are suggesting that if we just ignore pain then we won't have to deal with pain and opioid abuse will disappear. That is not only fantastical thinking, it is harmful to millions of people in pain.” 

"This is a very unfortunate decision, one that creates the very real possibility that we will see a decrement in the quality of pain care delivered in various institutions," warned Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management.

"The Joint Commission standards say you need to assess pain in every patient; record the results of that assessment; provide some kind of treatment; re-assess to see if the treatment was effective; and teach staff how to manage pain. They do not say we should ask patients how much pain they have on a 0-10 scale and give them opioids until the pain level is 4 or less. Not asking about pain does not make pain go away, and it does not relieve healthcare providers of their moral and ethical obligation to treat that pain effectively."

AMA Adopts PROP Policies

AMA delegates also passed a resolution urging The Joint Commission to stop requiring hospitals to ask patients about the quality of their pain care. Medicare has a funding formula that requires hospitals to prove they provide good care through patient satisfaction surveys.  The formula rewards hospitals that are rated highly by patients, while penalizing those that are not. 

"Judging health care facilities on an overly subjective measure – that is, how well it is perceived that they treat pain -- is an overly simplistic approach to measuring clinical effectiveness," said AMA Board chair Patrice Harris, MD, in a statement.

Passing the two resolutions means the AMA has essentially adopted the same policies as Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), which is also lobbying the Joint Commission to weaken its pain management standards.  PROP is funded by Phoenix House, which runs a chain of addiction treatment centers. 

“At a time when millions of individuals in pain are under siege, the AMA has made it clear they are no friend to people in pain as they are opposed to being accountable for the pain care they provide, “ said David Becker, a patient advocate and social worker. “The AMA has become regressive, vision less, and hard-hearted toward the suffering that millions of people in pain endure on a daily basis. It is clear that the AMA is in need of moral reform.”

A recent survey of over 1,200 patients by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation found that many were dissatisfied with their pain treatment in hospitals. Over half rated the quality of their pain care as either poor or very poor, and over 80% said hospital staff are not adequately trained in pain management.

The AMA House of Delegates also passed a resolution calling for greater access to naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and adopted a policy urging health insurers to increase coverage of non-opioid and non-pharmacological pain treatments.

Insurers must cover non-opioid and non-pharmacologic therapies that have proved effective. Insurers must take a broader view to give patients and physicians more choices," said Harris. “These policies will save lives. That's the bottom line.”

Joint Commission Defends Hospital Pain Standards

(Editor’s Note: As Pain News Network has been reporting, an intense lobbying effort is underway to stop requiring U.S. hospitals to ask patients about the quality of their pain care. Critics contend the practice creates a financial incentive for hospitals to treat pain and leads to “aggressive opioid use.”  The Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals and sets pain management standards, released this statement about the controversy, which we thought you should see in its entirety.)

By David Baker, MD

In the environment of today’s prescription opioid epidemic, everyone is looking for someone to blame. Often, The Joint Commission’s pain standards take that blame.  We are encouraging our critics to look at our exact standards, along with the historical context of our standards, to fully understand what our accredited organizations are required to do with regard to pain.

The Joint Commission’s standards require that patients be assessed for pain, and if they are experiencing pain, then it should be managed. The standards DO NOT require the use of drugs to manage a patient’s pain; and when a drug is appropriate, the standards do not specify which drug should be prescribed.

Our foundational standards are quite simple. They are: 



  • The hospital educates all licensed independent practitioners on assessing and managing pain.
  • The hospital respects the patient's right to pain management.
  • The hospital assesses and manages the patient's pain. (Requirements for this standard follow)
    1. The hospital conducts a comprehensive pain assessment that is consistent with its scope of care, treatment, and services and the patient's condition.
    2. The hospital uses methods to assess pain that are consistent with the patient's age, condition, and ability to understand.
    3. The hospital reassesses and responds to the patient's pain, based on its reassessment criteria.
    4. The hospital either treats the patient's pain or refers the patient for treatment. Note: Treatment strategies for pain may include pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic approaches. Strategies should reflect a patient-centered approach and consider the patient's current presentation, the health care providers' clinical judgment, and the risks and benefits associated with the strategies, including potential risk of dependency, addiction, and abuse.

Despite the stability and simplicity of our standards, misconceptions persist, and I would like to take this opportunity to address the most common ones:

Misconception #1: The Joint Commission endorses pain as a vital sign

The Joint Commission does not endorse pain as a vital sign, and this is not part of our standards. Starting in 1990, pain experts started calling for pain to be “made visible.” Some organizations implemented programs to try to achieve this by making pain a vital sign. The original 2001 Joint Commission standards did not state that pain needed to be treated like a vital sign. The only time that The Joint Commission referenced the fifth vital sign was when The Joint Commission provided examples of what some organizations were doing to assess patient pain. In 2002, The Joint Commission addressed the problems in the use of the 5th vital sign concept by describing the unintended consequences of this approach to pain management and described how organizations had subsequently modified their processes. 

Misconception #2: The Joint Commission requires pain assessment for all patients

This requirement was eliminated in 2009.

Misconception #3: The Joint Commission requires that pain be treated until the pain score reaches zero.

There are several variations of this misconception, including that The Joint Commission requires that patients are treated by an algorithm according to their pain score. In fact, throughout our history we have advocated for an individualized patient-centric approach that does not require zero pain. The introduction to the “Care of Patients Functional Chapter” in 2001 started by saying that the goal of care is “to provide individualized care in settings responsive to specific patient needs.”

Misconception #4: The Joint Commission standards push doctors to prescribe opioids

As stated above, the current standards do not push clinicians to prescribe opioids. We do not mention opioids at all:
The note to the standard says: Treatment strategies for pain may include pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic approaches. Strategies should reflect a patient-centered approach and consider the patient's current presentation, the health care providers' clinical judgment, and the risks and benefits associated with the strategies, including potential risk of dependency, addiction, and abuse.

Misconception #5: The Joint Commission pain standards caused a sharp rise in opioid prescriptions.

This claim is completely contradicted by data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (Figure 1).

The number of opioid prescriptions filled at commercial pharmacies in the United States from 1991 to 2013 shows the rate had been steadily increasing for ten years prior to the standards’ release in 2001. It is likely that the increase in opioid prescriptions began in response to the growing concerns in the U.S. about under treatment of pain and efforts by pain management experts to allay physicians’ concerns about using opioids for non-malignant pain. Moreover, the standards do not appear to have accelerated the trend in opioid prescribing. If there was an uptick in the rate of increase in opioid use, it appears to have occurred around 1997-1998, two years prior to release of the standards.

The Joint Commission pain standards were designed to address a serious, intractable problem in patient care that affected millions of people, including inadequate pain control for both acute and chronic conditions. The standards were designed to be part of the solution. We believe that our standards, when read thoroughly and correctly interpreted, continue to encourage organizations to establish education programs, training, policies, and procedures that improve the assessment and treatment of pain without promoting the unnecessary or inappropriate use of opioids. 

The Joint Commission is committed to working to dispel these misunderstandings and welcomes dialogue with the dedicated individuals who are caring for patients in our accredited organizations.

David Baker, MD, is Executive Vice President of Healthcare Quality Evaluation at The Joint Commission

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.