October 30, 2015: In the first case of its kind, a California doctor is convicted of murder in the deaths of three patients who were prescribed "crazy, outrageous amounts" of painkillers. Dr. Lisa Tseng earned $5 million in one three-year period as she built her practice around prescribing huge amounts of opioids with little record keeping and total disregard for patient safety. "You can't hide behind a white lab coat and commit crimes," said the district attorney.
In the intervening 14 years between the Bergman case the the Tseng case, a lot has happened. To be clear, I'm not comparing the two cases. Nor am I suggesting that either is wholly representative of current approaches to pain management generally or opioid use specifically. Rather, I see these two cases as sentinels - two opposing, symbolic, and instructive cases that exhibit how far the pendulum of pain management is capable of swinging.
This weekend, the National Governor's Association gathered in Washington, D.C. To the surprise of some, the sessions have been dominated by bipartisan concerns over prescription drug abuse. The group of governors decided over the weekend to explore creating new guidelines on painkiller prescriptions that could include restrictions on the number of prescriptions that can be written and "locking in" a doctor and pharmacy so patients can only secure painkillers at a single location.
This is a good sign. Perhaps the governors can find the right place for the pendulum to come to rest, a balance between public health crisis and pain management access. Governor Shumlin of Vermont, who devoted his entire State of the State address to this issue in 2014, summed it up best: "You have the most conservative Republican governors and the most liberal Democratic governors agreeing" on the urgent need to get something done. In this winter of political discontent, when is the last time we could say that about any public policy issue?
But they face significant challenges:
First, guideline overload. CDC, ODG, ACOEM, State of (fill in the blank), FDA labeling, NIH, and a dozen other reputable organizations all have guidelines around opioid prescribing. If the governors add another set of guidelines, we risk alienating the very primary care physicians we're trying to reach and educate.
Second, unintended consequences. This list is admittedly tough:
- Limiting the number of pills in circulation may prove to be correlated with an increase in heroin use;
- Laws aims at bad docs can make good docs less willing to treat pain patients;
- One state's successful efforts to combat prescription drug misuse and abuse can shift such activity to neighboring states.
Despite all of these obstacles, this is obviously a fight worth fighting. And with such bipartisan support, maybe our governors can actually lead the way toward solutions that make sense.
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