Sunday, June 17, 2007

Pain treatment and the fine line between therapy and felony

In this morning's NY Times Magazine:

When Is a Pain Doctor a Drug Pusher?
By TINA ROSENBERG
Published: June 17, 2007
Those treating pain make subjective choices about dosage. When a doctor gets it wrong, is it a mistake or a felony?
For a variety of reasons, and for a variety of patients (not only patients who have chronic and severe pain) and their doctors, the article includes some important facts, e.g.:

[F]or many people in severe chronic pain, an opioid (an opiumlike compound) like OxyContin, Dilaudid, Vicodin, Percocet, oxycodone, methadone or morphine is the only thing that allows them to get out of bed. Yet most doctors prescribe opioids conservatively, and many patients and their families are just as cautious as their doctors. Men, especially, will simply tough it out, reasoning that pain is better than addiction.

It’s a false choice. Virtually everyone who takes opioids will become physically dependent on them, which means that withdrawal symptoms like nausea and sweats can occur if usage ends abruptly. But tapering off gradually allows most people to avoid those symptoms, and physical dependence is not the same thing as addiction. Addiction — which is defined by cravings, loss of control and a psychological compulsion to take a drug even when it is harmful — occurs in patients with a predisposition (biological or otherwise) to become addicted. At the very least, these include just below 10 percent of Americans, the number estimated by the United States Department of Health and Human Services to have active substance-abuse problems. Even a predisposition to addiction, however, doesn’t mean a patient will become addicted to opioids. Vast numbers do not. Pain patients without prior abuse problems most likely run little risk. “Someone who has never abused alcohol or other drugs would be extremely unlikely to become addicted to opioid pain medicines, particularly if he or she is older,” says Russell K. Portenoy, chairman of pain medicine and palliative care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and a leading authority on the treatment of pain.

The other popular misconception is that a high dose of opioids is always a dangerous dose. Even many doctors assume it; but they are nonetheless incorrect. It is true that high doses can cause respiratory failure in people who are not already taking the drugs. But that same high dose will not cause respiratory failure in someone whose drug levels have been increased gradually over time, a process called titration. For individuals who are properly titrated and monitored, there is no ceiling on opioid dosage. In this sense, high-dose prescription opioids can be safer than taking high doses of aspirin, Tylenol or Advil, which cause organ damage in high doses, regardless of how those doses are administered. (Every year, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Americans die from gastrointestinal bleeding associated with drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin, according to a paper published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology.)

It's a well-balanced article that discusses all the reasons why 50% of patients who experience serious chronic pain remain undermedicated: poor medical school training, physicians who are as uninformed as the general public, well-intentioned but counter-productive laws such as Washington's, medical licensing boards that don't understand that high-dose opioids do not equal abuse or malpractice, and fear of criminal prosecution.
posted by tommayo, 8:19 AM

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