The Visible Few Pain Patients

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

I receive several emails a week from people who ask for help because their treatment options have been limited or eliminated. They are in terrible pain, and they don’t know what to do.

One such person, Sharon Berenfeld, MD, recently shared an experience she had visiting her doctor.

“Dr. Webster, I came across a publication of yours. It struck a nerve with me. My pain is intractable. I have tried everything,” she wrote. “Before the exam room door even closed, [my doctor] announced to me, ‘If you think I’m just here to refill your pills, you can leave now.'

"I left in tears. I was being judged and punished for having a complication from cancer treatment. I completely understand the opioid crisis. But I feel impotent to do anything."

Who Are the Visible Few?

Earlier this year, Fox News' three-part series, Treating America's Pain: Unintended Victims of the Opioid Crackdown, showed the terrifying circumstances of people in pain and doctors under siege. One individual’s decision to commit suicide as a result of the crackdown on opioid prescribing embodies the struggles of people in pain and their providers' inability to meet their needs.

The visible few are the small number of people whose stories have been heard by journalists, media consumers and government officials. Their stories reflect millions of Americans suffering from chronic pain who live in the shadows and are invisible to most of us. 

The needs of people in pain and the challenges providers face when treating them have been overshadowed by the government's attempts to deal with the opioid crisis. The well-intentioned CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain has affected 20 million Americans with severe disabling pain.

It also is having consequences for everyone else in the healthcare system. Prescription opioids have been demonized and blamed for our current drug crisis.

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Unintended Consequences

The CDC guideline was supposed to be voluntary. However, in practice, the guideline has been treated as a policy with the strength of a law, and it has had severe unintended consequences. Many people are worse off in its wake. Here is a summary of the most substantial effects of the guideline.

  • Providers feel pressured to reduce the amount of opioids that they prescribe, regardless of their patients' individual needs. About 70% of physicians have reduced their opioid prescribing or stopped it completely.

  • Insurance companies set prescription limits based on the guideline. In some cases, they override physicians' recommendations. That means insurers, rather than doctors, are making decisions about how to treat pain.

  • Pharmacy chains are also limiting the amount of opioids they dispense, based on the guideline rather than on doctors' prescriptions..

  • The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have set dosage limits. Providers advocating for patients who need higher amounts must navigate a complicated appeals process.

  • State attorneys general have used the guideline to evaluate whether a doctor is prescribing for a legitimate medical purpose. Deviation from the guideline has been used to accuse doctors of criminal conduct.

  • In a desperate search for pain relief, some patients have turned to street drugs.

Where We Are Now

The CDC guideline has left a trail of misunderstanding in its path. Its authors acknowledged misapplication of the guideline in the New England Journal of Medicine, emphasizing that their intention was to provide guidance rather than to establish a mandate.

"Difficulties faced by clinicians in prescribing opioids safely and effectively, growing awareness of opioid-associated risks, and a public health imperative to address opioid overdose underscored the need for the guidance,” they wrote.

In a separate article in the JAMA Network, the guideline's authors said, “The number of people experiencing chronic pain is substantial, with U.S. prevalence estimated at 11.2% of the adult population. Patients should receive appropriate pain treatment based on careful considerations of the benefits and risks of treatment options.”

There are other signs of recognition that the guideline has been misinterpreted. For example, CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, wrote in a letter to Health Professionals for Patients in Pain (HP3), “The CDC is working diligently to evaluate the impact of the guideline and clarify its recommendations to reduce unintended harm.”

The American Medical Association's House of Delegates passed a series of resolutions on the guideline at an interim meeting in November 2018.

“Physicians should not be subject to professional discipline, loss of board certification, loss of clinical privileges, criminal prosecution, civil liability, or other penalties or practice limitations solely for prescribing opioids at a quantitative level above the morphine milligram level thresholds found in the CDC guidelines for prescribing opioids,” the AMA delegates said.

There is also some light being shined on the issue in a report by The Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach when treating and managing patients with painful conditions. Individuals who live with pain are suffering and need compassionate, individualized and effective approaches to improving pain and clinical outcomes. This is a roadmap that is desperately needed to treat our nation’s pain crisis,” said Vanila Singh, MD, task force chair and chief medical officer of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health.

As the opioid odyssey continues, there are signs that the visible few are beginning to be heard. This is an important step to helping the invisible millions with chronic pain receive the care they deserve.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.” You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

The information in this column 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.

Surgeons Reduce Rx Opioids Without Increasing Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Surgeons in Michigan have reduced the amount of opioid medication prescribed to patients recovering from common operations by nearly a third -- without causing patients to feel more postoperative pain.

In a new research letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team from the Michigan Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network (OPEN) reported on the results of a statewide effort to get surgical teams to follow prescribing guidelines for postoperative pain.

In just one year, surgeons at 43 Michigan hospitals reduced the number of opioid pills prescribed to patients after nine common operations, from an average of 26 pills per patient to an average of 18.

The surgeries included minor hernia repair, appendix and gallbladder removal, and hysterectomies. Most were minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries.

The ratings patients gave for their post-surgical pain and satisfaction didn't change from the ratings given by patients treated in the six months before opioids were reduced.

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Researchers say patients only took about half the opioids prescribed to them, even as the prescription sizes shrank. They attribute this to improved counseling about pain expectations and non-opioid pain control options.

"The success of the statewide effort suggests an opportunity for other states to build on Michigan's experience, and room for even further reductions in prescription size," said Michael Englesbe, MD, a University of Michigan surgery professor. "At the same time, we need to make sure that patients also know how to safely dispose of any leftover opioids they don't take."

The study involved over 11,700 patients who had operations at hospitals participating in the Michigan Surgical Quality Collaborative. About half of the patients also filled out surveys sent to their homes after their operations, asking about their pain, satisfaction and opioid use after surgery.

The Michigan-OPEN team has been working since 2016 to reduce opioid prescribing and quantify the appropriate number of pills patients should take. Their research led to the the development of new guidelines that were first tested on gallbladder surgery patients before being expanded to other types of surgery.

Some hospitals have stopped giving opioids to surgical patients. Patients at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital get acetaminophen, gabapentin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to manage their pain before and after colorectal operations – and their surgeons say the treatment results in better patient outcomes

It’s a common misconception that many patients become addicted to opioids after surgery. A 2016 Canadian study, for example, found that long term opioid use after surgery is rare, with less than one percent of older adults still taking opioid pain medication a year after major elective surgery.

Another large study in the British Medical Journal found similar results. Only 0.2% of patients who were prescribed opioids for post-surgical pain were later diagnosed with opioid dependence, abuse or a non-fatal overdose.

Another fallacy is that leftover pain medication is often stolen, sold or given away. The DEA says less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted.

What Doctors Say About CDC Opioid Guideline

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Over two-thirds of healthcare providers are worried about being prosecuted for prescribing opioid medication and many have stopped treating chronic pain, according to a new survey by Pain News Network on the impact of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guideline. One in four providers say they’ve lost a pain patient to suicide since the guideline was released in 2016.

A total of 68 doctors and 89 healthcare providers participated in the online survey. While that’s a relatively small sample size in comparison to the nearly 6,000 patients who took the survey, the providers come from a broad spectrum of healthcare, including pain management, primary care, palliative care, surgery, pharmacy, nursing and addiction treatment.

The CDC guideline discourages the prescribing of opioids for chronic pain and cautions doctors not to exceed a daily dose of 90 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) because of the risk of addiction and overdose. Although voluntary and only intended for primary care physicians, the guideline has been widely implemented as mandatory throughout the U.S. healthcare system.

Many doctors believe the guideline limits their ability to treat patients and has not improved the quality of pain care in the United States.  

“There are reasonable elements to the guidelines which should be preserved. However, setting an upper dose limit, especially one so low, severely interferes with titrating the opioids to their most effective doses, which is often much higher than 90 MME,” said a pain management doctor.

“The guidelines became hard rules for many insurance companies and pharmacies. Patients with pain have suffered in consequence,” said a palliative care doctor. 

“I see chronic pain patients all day that do not have their pain well controlled. It is heart breaking,” said another provider.

HAS CDC GUIDELINE IMPROVED QUALITY OF PAIN CARE?

“They are horribly ill-conceived. If we thought our previous approach to pain management was flawed, we surely will soon realize that these guidelines are worse,” said a pain management physician. “A patient told me two weeks ago that his friend needs repeated (coronary bypass) surgery, but now the hospital system treats post-surgical pain with Tylenol. This is barbaric.” 

An addiction treatment doctor summed up his feelings about the guideline with two words: “Misguided and draconian.”

Pain Contracts and Drug Tests

Nearly two-thirds of providers surveyed require patients to sign a “pain contract” before they get opioids. Over half have discharged a patient for failing a drug test or not following the rules. And nearly one in five mistakenly believe the guideline is mandatory.

  • 64% require patients to sign a pain contract or take drug tests

  • 52% have discharged patients for failing drug test or not following rules

  • 45% use more non-opioid therapies

  • 18% believe CDC guideline is mandatory

  • 17% refer more patients to addiction treatment

  • 10% stopped treating chronic pain patients

  •   7% closed practice or retired due to concerns about opioids

“I feel like the blow-back to the CDC guideline is just as misplaced as the misuse of it. The recommendations are good science,” said a pharmacy provider. “There are lots of people - prescribers, pharmacists, insurance companies, law enforcement - who have misapplied the guidelines and are practicing poorly with them as an excuse. That is not the fault of the guidelines themselves, but the fault of poor education and dissemination.”

“These guidelines came from people that do not serve as clinicians to patients,” said one provider. “I have witnessed patients being abruptly cut off from medications they've been on for years and without any notice. Some have gone through extreme withdrawal to the point of death from the complications of withdrawal.”

Disparity in Prescribing

The survey found a wide disparity in how providers have adjusted to the guideline’s recommendations.

Nearly half still prescribe opioids above 90 MME when they feel it’s appropriate, while 20 percent only prescribe at or below the 90 MME threshold. Fourteen percent have stopped prescribing opioids altogether.

“We are getting dumped on by all the PCP’s (primary care providers). They no longer want anything to do with patients on opioids,” said a pain management doctor. “What is medicine coming to that the number of opioids is more important than a patient’s well-being?”

“Acute pain is now being undertreated, as well as many who have been denied pain control with opiates. These patients are being harmed. All of us prescribers know that the majority of overdoses are from illegal opiates from other countries. We are not stupid,” wrote a provider who works in urgent care.

HOW HAS CDC GUIDELINE AFFECTED YOUR OPIOID PRESCRIBING?

Chilling Effect

Doctors are well aware they are under scrutiny. The Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies monitor prescription drug databases (PDMPs) to track opioid prescriptions. While PDMPs were initially promoted as a way to protect physicians from “doctor shopping” patients, they are now routinely used by the DEA to identify, threaten and raid the offices of doctors who prescribe high doses – even when there is no evidence of a patient being harmed by the drugs.       

“PDMPs are tracking prescribing based upon CDC guidelines. That has an adverse effect upon prescribers who end up being profiled and in jeopardy of arrest and prosecution,” a doctor wrote.

“They have weaponized the political and legal manifestations of appropriately treating chronic pain,“ said a pain management doctor.

“They have shamed high dose long term opioid patients and treat the prescriber like a bad guy. They are clueless to the fact that majority of deaths have always been street addicts and not legit pain patients. The guidelines embolden medical regulators to come after doctors, resulting in chilling effect on prescribers,” said an addiction treatment doctor.

The crackdown has also had a chilling effect on pharmacies and insurers, who are just as eager to stay out of trouble. Nearly three out of four providers (73%) say they’ve had a pharmacy refuse to fill an opioid prescription and 70 percent say an insurer has refused to pay for a pain treatment.

“Why does CVS, a drug store that sells NSAIDs without restriction, have control of how I treat my patient?” asked one provider.

“The insurance companies are acting beyond the CDC guidelines with their hard limits on dosing, even sending threatening letters to doctors,” said a physician. 

“Pharmacies and insurances are dictating how we treat our patients without the medical ability or authority to make diagnosis or treatment plans. Each patient is different,” wrote one provider. 

“The guideline is extremely narrow-minded and reactionary. Yes, opioid addiction has become a huge problem, and yes, some physicians are partially to blame because of inappropriate prescribing, but plenty more physicians prescribe opioids appropriately. Now many of those doctors are scared to do their job, leaving patients in unnecessary pain,” said a doctor.

Biased CDC Advisors

Many providers believe the guideline advisors assembled by the CDC were biased and unqualified to make recommendations for pain management. Their initial meetings were closed to the public and the agency refused to disclose who the advisors were. Later it was revealed that five board members of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an anti-opioid activist group, were involved in developing the guideline, including two that belonged to a key committee that helped draft it.

“They are an abomination that has been foisted on the world by PROP via the CDC and have no real clinical or evidence based background, yet are carried forward by political and bureaucratic purveyors of untruth,” said a pain management doctor.

“I believe this guideline was made by a panel without any pain doctors. How can they know what is best? They have contributed to stigma, and now patients instead of safely being monitored by pain clinics are turning to the streets and dying from illegal opioids. The CDC then uses that data to inflate the so-called epidemic,” said another provider.

“The CDC never weighed the information from the pain treating community. The consequences were predictable. Poor quality of life for the pain patients and continuation of the opiate epidemic from imported fentanyl. The guidelines were a travesty,” a pain management doctor wrote.

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“The CDC did not have the legal authority to issue the guidelines in the first place. They should be declared unconstitutional and burned. Dosing should be following the FDA published guidelines for a particular medication,” said a pharmacy provider.

‘Where Are the Followup Studies?’

When it released the guideline in 2016, CDC said it was “committed to evaluating the guideline” and would make revisions if there were unintended consequences. A CDC spokesperson recently told PNN several studies are underway evaluating the guideline, but gave no indication that any changes are imminent.

“Where are the followup studies to monitor the incidence of patients committing suicide, looking for illicit drugs on the streets, overuse of NSAIDs, (acetaminophen) with organ damage and death, increased disability, loss of quality of life, overuse of alcohol and tobacco, worsening of co-morbid conditions due to weight gain, inability to exercise or sleep, adverse effects on relationships?” asked a pain management doctor. “The guidelines are effective at saving money for the payors. That, I fear, is why there is no serious effort to revise the guidelines.”

For a breakdown of some of the other key findings from our survey, click here. To see what patients had to say about the guideline, click here. Our sincere thanks to everyone who took the time to participate.

Survey Shows Doctors Shunning Chronic Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, Editor

Chronic pain patients are not only having problems getting opioid medication, most are finding it hard just finding a doctor willing to treat their pain, according to a new survey.

Nearly 3,400 patients, doctors and healthcare providers responded to the online survey by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation, which was designed to assess the impact of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines after one year.

The guidelines are voluntary and only intended for primary care physicians, but are being implemented throughout the U.S. healthcare system, often with negative consequences for patients. Over 70 percent of patients said they are no longer being prescribed opioid medication or are getting a lower dose. 

Asked if it has become easier or harder to find a doctor willing to treat their chronic pain, nearly half of patients said it was harder and 11% said they were not able to find a doctor. 

“I have been unable to find a doctor to treat my pain. I was going to a pain doctor but she suddenly dropped all her chronic pain patients to focus on surgery,” said a patient who added that he is now buying pain medication on the black market.

“I have found a new primary care doctor that is OK with prescribing Valium but stated she won't treat chronic pain because ‘the DEA is watching all of us,’” wrote another patient.

"I have been told by more than one doctor that they cannot legally prescribe over the guidelines. They are very concerned about being investigated and as a result refuse to treat pain with an appropriate dose of opioids," said another patient.

HAS IT BECOME EASIER OR HARDER TO FIND A DOCTOR TO TREAT YOUR CHRONIC PAIN?

"I was weaned off opiates last summer," said a patient. "My lower back and head are now in constant pain. I tried to hang myself last December but failed and spent a few days in hospital. Everyone thinks it was bad fall. Next time I won't fail."

"You have taken away my life. I am no longer a member of society, but more importantly, I can no longer function as a mother to two disabled children. I have exhausted all alternative methods of treatment. What do I do now? Illicit drugs or suicide?" asked one mother.

Doctors and healthcare providers are well aware that pain patients are losing access to treatment. Over two-thirds (67%) acknowledge that it is harder for patients to find a doctor.  A small number (9%) admit they’ve stopped treating chronic pain patients.

“I feel a standard of care for pain management has been needed, but the chronic pain patient is being lost in the process,” wrote a pain management provider. “For the first time in 5 years, I had to tell a patient I did not know what to do to help them. Pain management needs regulations, but should not cause the quality of life of chronic pain patients to suffer.”

"The manner in which (the guideline) was issued and received seemed to cause a response in which patients were basically titrated off all medication. Over half of my patients were treated this way," said a psychologist.

"Further, there appeared to be little or no assistance or cooperation in this process of removing a patient's analgesic medication. Overall, I believe that the response to CDC guidelines has harmed legitimate pain patients."

Doctors Worried About Prosecution

Why are some doctors shunning pain patients? They’re not worth the risk or hassle may be the simplest way to explain it. Consider some of the problems healthcare providers say they've dealt with in the past year:

  • 59% say a pharmacy refused to fill an opioid prescription for a patient
  • 57% say insurance refused to pay for a pain treatment they thought necessary
  • 36% are worried about being prosecuted or sanctioned for prescribing opioids
  • 20% have discharged a patient for failing a drug test
  • 15% are referring more patients to addiction treatment
  • 10% have lost a pain patient to suicide

Only 12 percent said their patients were better off without opioids and just 16% said their patients were getting safer and more effective treatment since the guidelines were released. Over a third (38%) believe their patients have more pain and a reduced quality of life.

The survey also found a sizeable number of doctors and providers who mistakenly believe the CDC guidelines are mandatory for everyone. While 70% correctly recognize them as voluntary, 20% think they are mandatory and 10% of healthcare professionals admit they simply don’t know.

"When a government agency suggests treatment guidelines, they will become the law. That is currently happening. We have reduced the number of pain patients and are no longer accepting new pain patients. The fear of prosecution is very real," wrote one pain management doctor.

"They are being interpreted as mandates and creating fear about ever using opioids to treat pain appropriately," said a provider who treats geriatric patients.

“(They) need to make it even more clear that these guidelines are geared for primary care and not experienced board certified pain doctors. Creating hysteria is what this is doing,” said a pain management doctor.

“While well meaning, the guidelines are incredibly biased and my colleagues are using them as an excuse to arbitrarily exclude patients from opioids when they clearly need them,” wrote an emergency room doctor.

ARE THE CDC GUIDELINES VOLUNTARY OR MANDATORY RULES EVERYONE HAS TO FOLLOW?

There is a strong divergence between patients and providers about the safety and effectiveness of opioids. Nearly two-thirds of doctors and providers (64%) think there are safer and better alternatives than opioids, while only about 7 percent of patients think so.    

Another area of disagreement is whether the guidelines are causing more harm than good. The vast majority of patients -- over 95 percent -- believe they have been harmful, while only 40 percent of doctors and providers think so. Nearly one in four healthcare professionals (22%) believe the guidelines have been helpful to patients, while only about 1% of patients think so.

"We have two problems in the U.S. A drug addiction problem and a chronic pain problem. We should not be attempting to treat one problem if that will also create a worsening problem in those that suffer from the other," wrote a primary care doctor. "We need to work on a solution to the addiction problem while still allowing those with chronic pain that need the opioids in order to sustain an acceptable quality of life."

The online survey of 3,108 pain patients, 43 doctors and 235 other healthcare providers was conducted between February 15 and March 11. For more on how the guidelines are affecting patients, click here.

To see the complete survey results, click here.

How Have the CDC Opioid Guidelines Affected You?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Next month will mark the one year anniversary of opioid guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – guidelines that discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic non-cancer pain.

At the time of their release, the CDC estimated that as many as 11.5 million Americans were using opioid medication daily for pain relief. Many of those patients now say their doses have been abruptly lowered or they are unable to obtain opioids at all.

That could be a good thing, depending on your point of view about the nation’s so-called “opioid epidemic.” Former CDC director Thomas Frieden, MD, has called the guidelines an “excellent starting point” to stop an epidemic fueled by “decades of prescribing too many opioids for too many conditions where they provide minimal benefit.”

Many pain patients disagree, saying they’ve used opioids safely and effectively for years. They say the guidelines have had a chilling effect on many of their doctors and are being implemented in ways that go far beyond what the CDC intended.  

“Last year, when the CDC ‘recommendations’ came out, the entire building of the only doctor's office I can go to decided they were rules, and cut me from 210 mg/day morphine to 90 mg. Now they say they can only give me 60 mg/day,” wrote Eli, one of hundreds of patients we’ve heard from in the past year.

“I'm in so much pain I can't properly care for myself, nor get to town for supplies when I need them. I've become increasingly more disabled and dependent on others.”

“My pain management doctor told me that the CDC required that all morphine be taken away from all Americans,” wrote a California woman who suffers from severe back pain. “He even stated that surgeons were sending home their post-surgery patients with Motrin, nothing else.

“What are you people in the CDC doing? Don't you realize how paranoid doctors can get? You may think using the term ‘guideline’ will help them understand what you are trying to do, but you have created a bunch of neurotic paranoids. Stop it. Do something before you kill all of us.”

“I am a 76 year old intelligent woman who is not an addict or an abuser, yet I am denied relief from unremitting pain even after 20 years of trying every drug and treatment modality available,” wrote Roberta Glick. “I am at a total loss as to what to do, how to fight, etc.  My physician is a strong supporter.  He is not the problem. He also is a victim of misguided CDC attempts to curb drug addiction.”

Are the CDC guidelines voluntary or mandatory? Have they improved the quality of pain care? Are patients being treated with safer and better alternatives? Most importantly, are soaring rates of opioid abuse and addiction finally being brought under control?

Those are some of the questions Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation (iPain) are asking in an online survey of patients, doctors and other healthcare providers.

“I strongly believe that as these guidelines are implemented by doctors and hospitals around the country there are important lessons to learn from those who are affected by them,” says Barby Ingle, president of iPain and a PNN columnist.

“I hope that pain patients and providers participate in this survey so that we can begin to show how deep the impact actually is to the chronic pain community one year later.” 

The online survey consists of less than a dozen multiple choice questions, which should take only a few minutes to complete. Please take time out of your busy day and complete the survey by clicking here.

The survey findings will be released on March 15th, the first anniversary of the CDC guidelines. By taking the survey, you can also sign up to have the results emailed to you.

ER Doctors Lobby to Silence Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, Editor

A professional organization for emergency room physicians has joined in a lobbying effort to stop asking hospital patients about the quality of their pain care.

At issue is a Medicare 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. 

In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the head of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) claims that asking patients about their pain care could lead to overprescribing of opioid pain medication. To see the letter, click here.

“Patient experience/satisfaction surveys are important, particularly regarding issues of treating patients with dignity and respect, but questions about pain have resulted in unintended consequences and the pursuit of high patient-satisfaction scores may actually lead health professionals and institutions to practice bad medicine by honoring patient requests for unnecessary and even harmful treatments,” wrote Jay Kaplan, MD, President of ACEP, which represents over 30,000 emergency room physicians in the U.S.

“Any questions which provide an opportunity for patients to express dissatisfaction because they didn’t get the drugs they sought, provide disincentives for physicians to prescribe non-opioid analgesics which will negatively affect their scores.”

Only two questions are asked about pain in the 32-question survey known as the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS):

During this hospital stay, how often was your pain well-controlled?

During this hospital stay, how often did the hospital staff do everything they could to help you with your pain?

In his letter, Kaplan states “there is no objective diagnostic method that can validate or quantify pain” and until one is developed, both pain questions should be dropped from the survey.

“We are concerned that the current evaluation system may inappropriately penalize hospitals and physicians who, in the exercise of medical judgment, opt to limit opioid pain relievers to certain patients and instead reward those who prescribe opioids more frequently,” Kaplan wrote. “We urge the Department to undertake a robust examination of whether there is a connection between these measurements and potentially inappropriate prescribing patterns, and, until that is completed, we urge you to remove pain questions from the various CAHPS surveys.”

Kaplan’s letter is similar to one sent to Secretary Burwell in February by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and 25 of her colleagues in the U.S. Senate. To see that letter and the senators who signed it, click here.

“The evidence suggests that physicians may feel compelled to prescribe opioid pain relievers in order to improve hospital performance on quality measures,” wrote Sen. Collins.

Both Collins and Kaplan cite only one piece of “evidence” – a 2013 magazine article in The Atlantic  -- that mentions a small study of “drug seeking behavior” by emergency room patients. The article's author, who is a physician, also mentions anecdotal comments from colleagues and concludes “this problem is widespread.”  

Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation recently conducted a survey of over 1,250 pain patients and found that what is actually widespread in hospitals is poor pain care. Over half the patients surveyed said the quality of their pain treatment was poor or very poor and over 80 percent said hospital staffs are not adequately trained in pain management. Nine out of ten patients said they should be asked about their pain care in hospital satisfaction surveys.

“Before eliminating patients' right to critique their pain care, a better idea would be to ask doctors what they know about pain!” wrote one patient. 

When Pain News Network provided ACEP with the survey results, a spokesperson declined to comment on the findings.

A top Medicare official recently wrote an article in JAMA defending the HCAHPS survey.

"It has been alleged that, in pursuit of better patient responses and higher reimbursement, HCAHPS compels clinicians to prescribe prescription opioids. However, there is no empirical evidence that failing to prescribe opioids lowers a hospital’s HCAHPS scores," wrote Lemeneh Tefera, MD, Quality Measurement and Value-Based Incentives Group, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

"Although opioids are sometimes appropriate, depending on the underlying cause, other nonpharmaceutical approaches and multiple nonopioid pain medications are available to treat pain. Nothing in the survey suggests that opioids are a preferred way to control pain. On the other hand, good nurse and physician communication are strongly associated with better HCAHPS scores."

“I find this notion that we would stop asking patients how well their pain was controlled in the hospital appalling,” said Cindy Steinberg, National Director of Policy and Advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation. “I find it perverse that we would be more concerned with whether doctors in a hospital setting felt ‘pressure’ to provide pain relief than whether patients felt the hospital staff did all they could to help them with their pain. What ever happened to the focus on ‘patient-centered’ care?"