Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Pain control and the criminal law.

The New York Times has an essay by Sally Satel, M.D., in today's issue: "Doctors Behind Bars: Treating Pain Is Now Risky Business." Actually, it's been a legally perilous business for many years, although I thought that the adoption of intractable-pain legislation and regulations in many states signaled the arrival of some regulatory and prosecutorial sanity on the subject. This essay is some evidence that the war has not yet been won.

Dr. Satel does a good job of describing the public-health and law-enforcement conundrum that is created by intractable pain:
The red flags that rightly alert regulators to potential misconduct by doctors are, paradoxically, the very features that can also mark responsible care for intractable pain. These include prescribing high volumes of narcotic painkillers for extended periods, prescribing potentially lethal doses or prescribing several different drugs. In some regions, patients use several different pharmacies, at their doctor's instruction, because some pharmacists are reluctant to dispense large quantities of the medications.

To complicate matters further, doctor shopping can also be a sign of what is called pseudo-addiction: the efforts to obtain drugs look on the surface like drug addiction, but in fact represent the patient's attempt to attain an adequate level of pain control. Once that is achieved, the patient no longer presses for more narcotics.

All of this makes responsible law enforcement tricky, even difficult, but not impossible. It means that traditional red flags should not be ignored, nor should they be relied upon entirely when deciding whether to bring a case. Only careful, detailed, and expert analysis of the facts of each case can reveal whether the red flags are red herrings.

posted by tommayo, 7:20 AM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter