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

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