Fuzzy Opioid Math and Media Theatrics

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently produced a map that shows how prescription opioid use varies widely from state to state. Californians, for example, are prescribed opioids at about half the rate as people in Ohio and West Virginia.

The CDC also tells us that doctors “wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012, enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.”

Because an epidemic is a statistical phenomenon, defined by numbers derived from data, caution is required when presenting and interpreting such results.

The media has been anything but cautious in using these numbers as fodder for sensational anti-opioid reports.



“These pills didn’t just end up in patients’ hands; they also proliferated to black markets, were shared among friends and family, landed in the hands of teens who rummaged through parents’ medicine cabinets, and so on,” Vox reported, overlooking the fact that less than one percent of legally prescribed painkillers are diverted.

Some use the prescribing numbers to make a case for extreme measures to stop opioid addiction and overdose.

“In 12 states there are more opioid prescriptions than people,” David Brooks wrote in The New York Times, before suggesting an approach to addiction treatment that sounds like it came out of Les Misérables.

“Something like half of all sufferers drop out of treatment within a few months, so it might be worth thinking about involuntary commitment,” Brooks said.

Legally, by prescription, we have created an epidemic of death,” chimed in New Hampshire attorney Cecie Hartigan in an op/ed published by the Concord Monitor.  “What point is there in alleviating pain for people if it’s going to kill so many of them?  Except in cases of end-of-life care, opioids should not be prescribed.”

Unfortunately, a prescription is not a unit of measure, and statements like these only add to the hysteria and fuzzy math.

An “opioid prescription” is as imprecise as a “bottle of alcohol.” Obviously, a bottle may be small or large, and the alcohol it contains may be strong or weak. As a result, having a small bottle of beer with dinner would be unremarkable, but drinking a large bottle of vodka would be alarming.

This is the mistake in the CDC graphic and opioid prescription counts. A prescription is a paper or electronic document, specifying a particular drug in a particular strength given in a particular quantity -- which makes it unsuitable for statistical use. A prescription for 5 tablets of 50 mg of tramadol cannot be usefully compared with a prescription for 30 tablets of 25 mg of oxycodone.

The CDC’s fuzzy math paves the way for a lot of confusion. Media reports give dramatic percentages of people using prescription opioids, warning of dire consequences from even a few pills.

“If patients get their hands on a second dose, one out of seven will form an addiction. In the event that patients must take a long-acting opioid, about 25% will still be using the drug one year later,” Dr. Manny Alvarez wrote in the Fox News website, apparently unaware less than two percent of people prescribed opioids actually become long term users.  

National Public Radio reported that 57% of American adults in a recent poll said they had been prescribed a narcotic painkiller, and then went on to claim that “as many as 1 in 4 people who use opioid painkillers get addicted to them.”

There are 242 million adults in the U.S. population, so if 57% were prescribed opioids and one fourth of them became addicted, that would give us 34.5 million people addicted to painkillers. This is clearly not the case.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine reports that there are approximately 2 million prescription opioid addicts. These people need treatment, not media theatrics.

Moreover, 259 million prescriptions does not mean that 259 million people have a year’s supply of an opioid. In most cases, people receive a short course of a weak opioid, enough to help with acute pain after trauma or surgery.

As for long-term opioid use, the National Institutes of Health states that “an estimated 5 to 8 million Americans use opioids for long-term management.” Studies show that only a small percentage become addicted to their medication.

Surely we don’t need opioid detention centers or opioid prohibition. That would not help the people struggling with opioid addiction or people living with chronic pain disorders.

Ignore the fuzzy opioid math and related theatrics, and focus on the 2 million people struggling with opioid addiction and the 5 to 8 million people living with chronic pain conditions. They deserve our care and consideration, and certainly won’t benefit from media melodrama.

Roger Chriss suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society.

Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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.

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.

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

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.