Tuesday, March 29, 2016

President Obama at the National Rx Drug and Heroin Abuse Summit

Imagine getting the chance to hear the President speak in person.
Now imagine he comes to your home town to offer some thoughts on a given topic.
Finally, imagine the topic of his remarks is the very center of your professional life and something you eat, sleep, and breathe every day.

That was my day today.

As my legendary 12th grade English teacher Ross Friedman would say: today was a 9.9 on the groovy scale (note: there are no 10s... so this was clearly a really great day).

President Obama came to Atlanta today to talk about prescription drug and heroin abuse.  Rather than give a speech from a prepared text, he sat on a panel moderated by CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta along with two recovering addicts and an emergency room doctor who also serves as Baltimore City's Health Commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen (who, by the way, proved to be an incredible advocate for changing the way we view chronic pain and addiction... she issued a standing order in Baltimore so that any citizen in the city can secure a Naloxone prescription - an overdose antidote - under her name.  Just walk into any pharmacy in Baltimore and pick it up.  Beat that with a stick).

This format enabled President Obama to speak extemporaneously and candidly on a range of topics under the umbrella of prescription drug and heroin abuse.  He talked about the Affordable Care Act, mental and behavioral health, criminal justice reform, patient and physician education, addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery.  While I'm not supposed to betray my personal politics on the blog (at least according to my PR advisers), most people who know me know that I'm a fan of the president.  Despite my admitted admiration for Obama, I expected today to be filled with presidential sounding platitudes like "we need more addiction treatment in this country" and other relatively obvious and safe statements.  And he said most of the things I expected him to say along those lines.

But he said more than that.  My impression is that President Obama understands both the policy nuance and personal tragedy of this issue at a level I honestly didn't expect.  This is a guy fighting multiple battles against an array of terrorist organizations, he's steeped in a Supreme Court nomination fight, he's trying to figure out how and where to weigh in on the circus that has become the 2016 presidential election, and he's dealing with a hundred other issues on a daily basis.  But he came to Atlanta today to talk about prescription drug and heroin abuse.  And amidst all of the other issues on his desk, it's evident that he gets this.  And it shows.

When asked by Sanjay Gupta what brought him to Atlanta this afternoon, President Obama offered this: "When I show up, the cameras usually do, too."  He wasn't being arrogant.  He was suggesting that his mere presence, regardless of what he said, helps bring needed attention to this critical issue.  He was saying that he consciously chose to use the power of his office to shine a light on prescription drug and heroin abuse.  And he's right - there certainly were a lot of cameras there today.

He said "we need to think about this [drug abuse issue] as a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem."  Many of us close to this issue agree with that statement, but when the President of the United States says it out loud, it reshapes the broader public dialogue and helps further the aims of those of us who have been thinking that way for years.  Such a public statement will help reshuffle the priorities of agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, CDC, and NIH.

He said he was "shocked to learn how little education medical residents receive in pain management."  And as a result, 60 medical schools announced today their intention to significantly enhance pain management training in medical school residency programs.  The bully pulpit is real.

Finally, he said "we medicate... self-medicate... a lot of problems in this country."  I was floored when he said that.  We know that's true, he knows that's true, but for the president to say it out loud is to acknowledge the fundamental need for cultural change necessary to truly stem the tide of prescription drug and heroin abuse.  Perhaps the most deeply rooted of all the root cause issues behind prescription drug abuse is the notion that Americans expect to be pain free, stress free, anxiety free.  Opioids aren't ragingly popular simply because they help manage pain.  Opioids also have psychoactive attributes that make the slings and arrows of our difficult and complicated lives seem easier to handle.  And President Obama said it.  And that matters.

Today was a great day for me, personally and professionally.  I think today might also turn out to be a great day in the broader fight against prescription drug misuse and abuse.  And that's a great day for all of us.

On Twitter @PRIUM1

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Patient Should Not Be Punished for the Sins of the Prescriber

Dr. Mitchell Katz of the Los Angeles County Health Department wrote an editorial that was published in last week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA has made this set of editorials on opioid prescribing available free of charge).  The title caught my eye - Opioid Prescribing for Chronic Pain, Not for the Faint of Heart.  Indeed.

His intent is to offer a realistic appraisal of the new CDC opioid guidelines.  The tone of the editorial is best described as "great guidelines... but here's how the world really works."  While the pharmaceutical industry appears to have sheathed their swords for lack of argument, the physician community now has to figure out what to do with these new guidelines (if anything at all). Dr. Katz is supportive of the guidelines, but offers his view of their application through a lens of honest practicality.

A few key excerpts (emphasis added):
Even when seeing a patient who has not already begun taking opioids, we physicians have few alternatives for patients who have already tried nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications and acetaminophen without relief. Of the pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic options, none is likely to provide rapid pain relief, and none is very effective. Moreover, many of us work in resource-poor systems where arranging for someone to receive physical therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy—two useful therapies—is more difficult than weaning someone from long-term opioid use. To all patients, I give my well-rehearsed speech on why I believe opioids cause more harm than good for chronic pain, but ultimately I will prescribe them for a patient in pain for whom I see no other realistic option.
Embedded in this paragraph are two brutal facts that we must confront: 1) access to non-pharmacological modalities is not easy and cannot be assumed; 2) sometimes, even good doctors are faced with a choice between the lesser of two evils.  I would add that work comp payers should focus on alleviating issue #1 (by approving alternative modalities, going the extra mile to find practitioners, placing alternative non-pharm modalities in-network, etc.) in an attempt to relieve prescribers of burden #2.

Another cogent point from Dr. Katz:
One thing I am certain of: we need to engage patients in an honest and open way rather than quickly writing or refusing to write opioid prescriptions. Given that many patients may be defensive about using opioids, I always speak of my fears. I do not say “You are going through the pills too quickly.” Rather, I say “I am worried that at the doses of medication you are taking, the medicine will harm you.”
Language matters.  This is a subtle but critical point in the fight against opioid misuse and abuse: patient engagement isn't as complicated as we sometimes make it out to be.  Clinicians that are willing to have difficult conversations and who are willing to be honest and transparent with their patients will have more success treating pain than clinicians who find themselves, in Dr. Katz's words, "quickly writing or refusing to write opioid prescriptions."  

Finally, in the context of the complicated matter of opioids and benzodiazepines (you'll have to read his editorial for his full view on the matter), Dr. Katz offers this piece of advice: The patient should not be punished for the sins of the prescriber.  

That should serve as a guiding principle to all of us engaged in this fight.  Above all else, we need to focus on the health, safety, and functionality of injured workers.

On Twitter @PRIUM1

Thursday, March 17, 2016

What the New CDC Opioid Guidelines Will Mean to Work Comp

Not much, I fear.  Allow me to explain...

What the CDC has done here is critically important to addressing the public health crisis that is opioid misuse and abuse.  While the CDC's process came under scrutiny (from, among others, me), the resulting guidelines are evidence-based, well-written, and carry the imprimatur of the preeminent public health agency in this country.  That's groundbreaking.  But I'm not sure we're going to see a significant impact in workers' compensation for three reasons.

Before we dive in, here's a link to the guidelines.
Here's a link to Dr. Tom Frieden's (CDC Director) letter regarding the guidelines in NEJM.
And here's perhaps the most practically valuable thing the CDC published earlier this week - a checklist for primary care physicians who prescribe opioids (this is excellent).

Reason #1 we're unlikely to see a significant impact in work comp: It takes a long time for new medical evidence to penetrate actual physician practice.  The guidelines have received a lot of press coverage over the last few days, but busy primary care physicians may not be immediately responsive to new medical evidence even if they see it on the front page of the local newspaper. First, not all physicians have the same faith in an agency of the federal government that I possess.  In fact, for some, the notion that the federal government published these guidelines may be the primary source of skepticism.  Second, there will armies of pharma reps to gently, diplomatically, but firmly push back, find holes, work arounds, etc. to increase the likelihood that current prescribing practices remain intact.  Third, there are obviously no enforcement mechanisms in connection with these guidelines.  A primary care doc who chooses not to follow them will face no immediate consequences (though, we should be clear, the long term consequences to the patients of such a doctor could be catastrophic).

Reason #2: Our primary cost drivers in work comp are long term, chronic pain cases.  The new guidelines offer precious little guidance for these types of cases.  Most of the guidelines focus on opioid initiation and to the extent chronic opioid therapy is addressed, the guidelines suggest avoiding it.  Well... what if we have an injured worker who has been on opioids for that past 10 years?  Whose dose has escalated regularly and dangerously over that period?  The guidelines suggest those opioids should be weaned.  Right.  Telling a primary care doc to simply wean a patient off of opioids in the midst of a long term, complicated, polypharmacy drug regimen is perhaps expecting too much.  I would have liked to have seen more detailed guidance on how to deal with such complex patients.  So why didn't the CDC go there?  Because it's really complicated, that's why.

Reason #3: Primary care docs, by and large, didn't create most of our pain management issues in work comp.  Granted, I'm dealing with a very skewed subset of cases here at PRIUM.  I recognize we suffer from adverse selection, so this might not be accurate for the entirety of the work comp universe.  But what we see is that surgeons and pain management specialists tend to initiate complex pain management drug regimens (after the profitable procedural work is done) and then, in perhaps the most unkindest cut of all, the patient is discharged back to the primary care doc... who is now overwhelmed by a monster of a drug regimen that he did not create.  Yes, primary care docs write almost 10 times more opioid scripts per year (28 million) than pain management and interventional pain management doctors combined (3 million), but will these new guidelines - aimed at primary care docs - help them much if they're not the ones making the initial prescribing decision?

I'm thrilled the CDC published these guidelines.  I think they represent useful, cogent, and practical thinking.  And I hope I'm wrong that we won't see a material impact in work comp.

On Twitter @PRIUM1 (just click the link to follow!)

Monday, March 14, 2016

States Take On Painkillers

Despite efforts at the federal level (CDC guidelines - such as they are, the Obama administration committing $1 billion to fight drug abuse, etc.), the real public policy movement on prescription drug and heroin abuse is happening at the state level.  And it's happening fast.

This morning, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law new restrictions on opioid prescriptions in his state.  Perhaps most notably, new opioid prescriptions are not to exceed a 7 day supply.  This is groundbreaking legislation and could lead to similar bills throughout the country. Yes, there are carve outs for cancer patients and chronic pain patients, but these are reasonable caveats necessary to maintain access to care.  Whether or not opioids are medically necessary for most chronic pain patients (they're not) is a separate discussion.  This law will help prevent dependence and addiction in new patients.  We still have a lot of work to do with the existing chronic pain population.  One more tidbit - there's no exception for work comp.  I've scoured the 42 pages of the bill and injured workers will be subject to the same protocol as everyone else.  

From today's New York Times, a recap of state-level efforts to curb painkiller and heroin abuse (highlighting the above mentioned efforts in Massachusetts).  Did you know that there are 375 proposals moving through state legislatures nationwide regarding prescription painkillers, pain clinics, and other aspects of treatment?  That's a dizzying pace of regulation.  The fault, our governors have decided, will not fall to the underlings of the federal bureaucracy - they're going to do something about this.  Now.  Governor Pete Shumlin of Vermont, who devoted the entirety of his 2014 State of the State speech to this topic, summed it up best: "The states are going to lead on this because Big Pharma has too much power."  I'd add that state medical associations have a lot of power, too, but they've come to the table across the country.  In Massachusetts, the president of the state's medical society put in plainly: "Usually we are opposed to carving anything in stone that has to do with medical practice.  But we are willing to go forward with this limitation [the 7 day supply restriction] because we recognize this is a unique public health crisis."  

The Times also has a piece today covering direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising for pharmaceutical products, a practice that the American Medical Association has advocated be banned.  The research suggests that there may be benefits to DTC advertising.  Yes, utilization of advertised drugs goes up.  But so does utilization of competitive drugs in the same class. The article seems to think this is good news - conditions historically stigmatized (like depression) are being treated more frequently because DTC advertising is prompting doctor-patient conversations that might not have taken place otherwise.  I acknowledge this is a good thing, but can we not come up with a better way to remove stigma and treat mental health conditions than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads?  Finally, there appears to be an uptick in patient medication compliance as a result of DTC advertising (you see the ad, you're reminded to take the pill that's already been prescribed to you).  That's great, but again... can we not come up with better approaches to patient medication compliance?  I still think the risks and costs of DTC advertising outweigh the benefits.

Lots going on.  I sense progress.

On Twitter @PRIUM1

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Nurse by Day, Officer by Night: One of Our Industry's Greats

We've recently heard a lot about getting back to basics in work comp, celebrating the things we do right, fixing the things we do wrong, advocating for injured workers, and rewarding individuals who make great contributions.  I think this is a great idea.  And I'd like to make a contribution to this industry-wide conversation...

...by utterly embarrassing a trusted colleague (who, after she reads this, may never speak to me again).  

We like to think of ourselves here at PRIUM as "fighting the good fight" against the scourge of opioid misuse and abuse, the fundamental public health problem of chronic pain management, and the potentially overwhelming clinical and financial consequences of complex work comp claims. Most of us come to work each day prepared for battle - passionate about what we do, but also acutely aware of past battles won and lost.  Good days find us celebrating wins: better health, safety, and functionality for injured workers.  Bad days find us coping with the death of an injured worker whose medication regimen wasn't changed quickly enough.  Sometimes we just don't have enough time.

But after good days and bad days, all of us go home, detach, unplug, do something else to help us prepare for the next day's battles.

All of us, that is, except for one.

Linda Breads is PRIUM's Director of Medication Oversight Services.  She's a nurse by training and experience and she leads a group of dedicated professionals here at PRIUM in following up, coordinating, and creating accountability on necessary medication changes for injured workers.  She's extraordinarily good at what she does here at PRIUM.  But that's just the start of her day...

When Linda leaves work, she doesn't detach.  She serves our local community as a standby paramedic at local youth sports events.  I took my kids to a high school football game last year and had the pleasure of running into Linda, ready and waiting on the sideline in case an injured player needed medical attention.

But perhaps her greatest contribution to our community is the role she plays in helping keeping all of us safe.  Since 2005, Linda has served as a Citizens Auxiliary Police Service (CAPS) Officer with the Alpharetta, GA police department.  And she's done more than just volunteer.  Linda has three times been awarded CAPS "Officer of the Quarter"; in 2009, she was awarded CAPS "Officer of the Year"; and in 2014, she was awarded "Police Safety Volunteer of the Year." (None of which, by the way, she's ever mentioned to me.  I had to send spies to find out about all of this).

In the course of her work as a CAPS officer, Linda routinely confronts the brutal reality of prescription drug and heroin abuse.  She lives it here at PRIUM... and she lives it in her role as community volunteer.  Up close and personal, for the entire live-long day.  Two weeks ago, I wrote about the heroin epidemic here in my local community.  As I wrote that post, it occurred to me that while I might research, write, and talk about the issue, Linda leaves a full day of hard work here at PRIUM and goes out into our community to actually do something about it.  

And I think that's awesome.  Linda spends her free time trying to do exactly what she does during her professional time: make the world a little bit safer.  

Linda would have been a superb professional police officer.  But I'm personally glad she became a nurse.  I'm proud that she works here at PRIUM.  I'm even prouder that she works so hard and is so dedicated and passionate about her job.  But most of all, I'm proud she lives in my community.  The world is made up of communities just like ours, just like yours.  And the world would be a safer place with more people like Linda in it.

On Twitter @PRIUM1

Monday, March 7, 2016

Physician Education is Key to Chronic Pain Management

Two themes to which I find myself frequently returning:

  1. Primary care doctors are overwhelmed by and ill-equipped to deal with chronic non-cancer pain patients and related long-term opioid therapy; and
  2. Mandatory physician education would make a significant difference in the fight against opioid misuse and abuse. 

A paper just published from the University of Missouri puts some data around both of these themes and offers an encouraging path forward on physician training (online link not yet available).

Hariharan Regunath, MD, and some colleagues in the Department of Medicine at the University of Missouri conducted a survey asking 45 internal medicine residents about outpatient chronic non-cancer pain management with opioids.  Some unsettling, but not altogether surprising, results:

  • 77.8% reported lack of training in this area
  • 86.7% reported lack of consistent documentation from other providers
  • 62.2% had at least 1 patient about whom they had concerns for misuse or addiction
  • On the bright side, 86.7% believed that focused education could make a difference
So the researchers decided to try some focused education!  After reviewing the results of the initial survey, Dr. Regunath and his team put together a series of educational modules specifically targeting the areas of identified knowledge deficits among the surveyed residents.  

The results were fantastic:
(on a scale of agree to neutral to disagree, % that "agreed" is reported in the table below)

The authors note that despite these compelling results (albeit among a small sample), progress is slow.  "Even at this time, medical education in chronic pain management is still not a mandatory Accrediting Council of Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) component..."  This attitude among the medical education establishment - what's done cannot be undone... or revised, or updated, or improved, even in the midst of a public health crisis - is utterly ridiculous.  

I guess if we can't get mandatory education in place for currently practicing doctors, we might at least start with medical schools and residency programs?  The doctors of the future deserve it.  And so do their patients.   

On Twitter @PRIUM1