Monday, November 28, 2016

The Surgeon General Missed Something

First and foremost, the Surgeon General's recently released report "Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health" is a tremendously informative and culturally important step in the fight against prescription drug misuse and abuse.  Historically, Surgeon General reports have changed our national conversation on critically important public health issues such as smoking (34 separate reports from 1964 to 2014), HIV/AIDS (3 reports from 1987 to 1992), and mental health (2 reports from 1999 and 2001).  The fact that Dr. Vivek Murthy, our current Surgeon General, has turned the attention of the public health community to the topic of addiction is certainly a sign of progress.

Among its many constructive contributions, the report attempts to re-frame our nation's struggle with addiction in 'public health' terms rather than 'criminal justice' terms.  This change in approach appears to be among the precious few issues that have garnered bi-partisan support over the last couple of years, including through our most recent (and otherwise rancorous) election cycle.  Delays have dangerous ends, so I'm hoping that a change in party occupying the White House won't lead to a reversion in the public health progress we've begun to make.  

I did, however, find one notable omission from the Surgeon General's report.

Most readers of this blog live in the world of pain management and long term opioid use.  We see our daily battle as inextricably linked to the broader issue of addiction in our society and we see, up close and personal, a lot of the underlying causes that need to be addressed (mental and behavioral health issues, unrealistic expectations of pain relief, social factors that influence healing and pain perception, etc.)  But our lens on the issue is unique: what we often see is a legitimate prescription that is medically unnecessary (and, in many cases, downright harmful).

Interestingly, in Chapter 1 of the Surgeon General's report, the classes of drugs we most often encounter (pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives) are categorized under the heading "Illicits" and sub-categorized for purposes of reporting on misuse and abuse as "non-medical use."  The Surgeon General relies on the self-reported statistics from National Survey on Drug Use and Health.  I see this as a problem.  Take an example:

Premise: Bob was injured on the job back in 2011.  He perceives himself to be disabled (because everyone in his life keeps telling him he is) and began taking, as directed by his physician, 20 mg of oxycodone 2X day immediately post-injury... and is now taking 80 mg of the same drug 4X a day five years later.

Question 1: Would Bob categorize his use of oxycodone as "non-medical"?  He would not.
Question 2: Is Bob's use of oxycodone medically necessary?  Probably not.  In fact, it's probably inhibiting his functionality and ability to recover from the original injury.
Question 3: Is this category of drug use ('medically unnecessary') an important component of the public health dialogue around misuse of drugs?  Absolutely.

So why isn't it considered in the SG's report?  Maybe the data wasn't there.  Maybe the SG didn't want to rub the physician community the wrong way (he needs to enlist them in the fight, so why tick them off or impugn their credibility by blaming them for inappropriately prescribing in a seminal report?)

Whatever the reason, there's a category missing from the report.  And it's an important one.  Every time we taper a patient off of an opioid that wasn't helping him, we contribute to the progress against prescription drug misuse and abuse.

On Twitter @PRIUM1

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A New Regulatory Approach to Opioids

The New York Workers' Compensation Board has announced a new avenue for payers to challenge the appropriateness of long-term opioid use.  Published last week, the notice begins:
Opioid addiction is a major public health crisis in the state that deeply affects many of New York’s injured workers. The New York Non-Acute Pain Medical Treatment Guidelines (NAP MTG) adopted by the Chair in 2014 present a comprehensive approach to the management of chronic pain, and include best practice recommendations for the appropriate use of narcotics. 
As the NAP MTG makes clear, long-term opioid use is only recommended in limited circumstances, and must involve constant clinical monitoring and re-evaluation. The NAP MTG also includes best practices for safely weaning injured workers from opioids and other narcotics.
A workers’ compensation hearing can now be scheduled to determine whether continuing opioid usage is necessary or whether weaning from opioids is recommended.
This is an important development, but it's not a panacea.  This new type of hearing is specifically designed to "consider opioid weaning."  If opioid weaning is to be considered, then the payer would be well served to have a suggested weaning plan documented.  While the actual implementation of a tapering schedule may differ from the suggested plan, the prescribing physician should at least be aware of the guidelines associated with the drugs requiring weaning.  As always, the turning of the tide against opioid misuse and abuse requires preparation.  

The potential outcomes are fairly concrete.  According to the Board: 
When the WCLJ rules that the claimant must be weaned from the opioid medication, the insurer will be required to cover the cost of the claimant’s addiction treatment program or weaning protocol, as directed. If the claimant is to be weaned without addiction services, the insurer will remain liable for the claimant’s medications for the duration of the weaning process. If an addiction treatment program has been directed, then after 30 days, the insurer will only be liable for payment of narcotic prescriptions written by an addiction treatment program physician.
We'll be watching closely.

On Twitter @PRIUM1 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Does Restricting Opioids Lead to More Heroin Overdose Deaths?

Turns out Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a condition suffered by newborn babies of opioid-addicted mothers, isn't the only risk to children in the fight against opioid misuse and abuse.  A JAMA Pediatrics article published yesterday showed a more than 2-fold increase in hospitalizations among children due to opioid poisonings.  While the bulk of these hospitalizations were predictably among older adolescents, the fastest growing cohort of hospitalizations occurred among the youngest children (toddlers and pre-schoolers) who can't tell the difference between candy and OxyContin.  A follow-on piece in the Washington Post fairly equates this public health risk to the gun control debate. Lock up the guns, lock up the drugs - our kids are paying too high a price.  

In other news, this month's Health Affairs contains a really interesting article on the relationship between state laws and opioid / heroin overdose deaths (Health Affairs 35, No. 10 (2016); 1876-1883).  Here are the high level conclusions:

  • States that pass laws pertaining to mandatory physician review of PDMP data and the strict licensing of pain clinics reduced opioid amounts prescribed by 8% and opioid overdose death rates by 12%.  
  • The study also observed a large (though statistically insignificant) reduction in heroin overdose death rates.  This might be counter-intuitive to you because some believe cutting off the supply of opioids in a community creates risk of increased heroin use.  
The public policy conclusions here are important.  First, if passing these common-sense laws really does lead to decreases in opioid supply and overdose deaths, there isn't any good reason not to implement mandatory PDMP checks and strict pain clinic laws (unless you live in Missouri... in which case irrational concerns over privacy consistently inhibit adoption of sound public health policy). 

Second, the study found "no evidence to support the assertion that policies to curb opioid prescribing are leading to heroin overdoses."  This doesn't mean that heroin overdoses haven't been on the rise; in fact, they've been increasing in virtually every state in the country.  What the study authors are saying is that new opioid restrictions do not appear to be accelerating the rise in heroin overdose deaths.  

Opioid and heroin abuse is clearly a complicated public health problem.  But this data suggests we should avoid the policy trap of using the one (potential heroin overdose deaths) as an excuse to not do the other (restrict the opioid supply through mandatory PDMP checks and strict pain clinic licensing). If there is data out there to the contrary, I'd honestly love to see it.  I think it's important to litigate these studies to ensure we're moving in the right direction.
As the devil can cite scripture for his purpose, we all seem able to find anecdotes to support our policy views.  Stories can be powerful illustrators of truth, but let's make sure we use data to guide our public policy discussions. 

On Twitter @PRIUM1