Monday, November 9, 2015

The Case for Physician Education in Light of Rising Death Rates

Two recent and related op-ed pieces in the NY Times lay out the logic I articulated in my last blog post on addiction and mental health.  The two pieces, taken together, offer a glimpse of the crushing reality of contemporary social and cultural circumstances for some population groups in this country as well as at least one clear imperative for how we might begin to fix it.  I don't have the bully pulpit of the Times editorial page (I wish), so I'm happy to defer to a Nobel prize winning economist and a professor from Cornell's medical school, respectively, to lay out this critical message to a much broader audience.

Paul Krugman (he's the Nobel prize winner) puts the recent research on rising death rates of white middle-aged Americans into political and economic context.  While he is a unapologetic liberal, his ultimate conclusion is that our politics didn't necessarily cause this despair, at least not in any direct sense.  Rather, the issues are more existential in nature.  One of the study's authors, Angus Deaton, offers a hypothesis: this group, he says, has "lost the narrative of their lives."  Krugman puts it in his own words this way: "we're looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream and are coping badly with its failure to come true."  And one of the most significant and negative coping mechanisms employed by this group?  Prescription painkillers.

Richard Friedman (he's the professor from Cornell medical school) builds a case for mandatory physician education for pain management and does so by building on the same Deaton-Case research from which Krugman's piece is derived.  He writes:
"All medical professional organizations should back mandated education about safe opioid treatment as a prerequisite for licensure and prescribing. At present, the American Academy of Family Physicians opposes such a measure because it could limit patient access to pain treatment with opioids, which I think is misguided. Don’t we want family doctors, who are significant prescribers of opioids, to learn about their limitations and dangers? 
It is physicians who, in large part, unleashed the current opioid epidemic with their promiscuous use of these drugs; we have a large responsibility to end it."
The more I read and write about chronic pain issues, the clearer it becomes to me that when we focus on root case issues, we increase the probability of making a dent in the problem.  This can be hard and depressing work, though.  Tracing chronic pain and drug abuse to root causes remains elusive - the answers are tied to social, cultural, economic, and historical forces we're just beginning to understand and unravel.

But one thing we must certainly do is ensure that the medical professionals charged with the health and well-being of their patients are, in fact, helping and not hurting our progress.

On Twitter @PRIUM1

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