Treatment? Or Murder?

I subscribe to Google news alerts for the phrase ‘overdose deaths.’  Google Alerts are a great way to follow any topic; subscribers receive headlines from newspapers and web sites for certain keywords from around the world. One thing that has become clear from my subscription is that there is no shortage of stories about deaths from opioids! Every day I see one article after the next, as news reporters notice the loss of more and more of their communities’ young people.

Along with the reports of overdoses are stories about doctors who are increasingly being prosecuted for the deaths of their patients. In an earlier post I described the case of Dr. Schneider and his wife, a nurse, who were tied to a number of overdose deaths in Kansas. That case stood out by the sheer number of deaths; the State charged the couple with the deaths of 56 patients. Cases involving fewer patients have become relatively common. The latest case that I’ve read about is a doctor in Iowa, who is accused of causing or contributing to the deaths of 8 people.

I try to present both sides of the argument when I write about this topic. I have been faced with the difficult decision over whether or not to prescribe narcotics many times, and I understand a doctor’s dilemma. The doctor sees a person who is in pain, and knows that there is a pill that will reduce that pain. But the doctor also knows, or SHOULD know, that initiating a prescription for narcotic pain medication always has unintended consequences, no matter how good the intentions of both doctor and patient.

In the Iowa case, the dilemma over narcotic-prescribing is very clear. The prosecution states that the doctor prescribed pain medication to drug addicts.  On the surface, that sounds bad, right? One gets the mental picture of dirty, lazy people, dissolving tablets in a spoon, over a candle, and then injecting the mixture. But reality is much more complicated. Patients with histories of opioid dependence do not always have track marks. And even if we tattooed the letter A across their chests, there are addicts who are in need of pain treatment. Are we to decide that every person who has become addicted to pain medication gives up the right to pain treatment?  And we know that many of the patients addicted to opioids became addicted through the course of pain treatment from their physician— so I would expect that on average, patients addicted to opioids would have a higher incidence of chronic pain, and vice versa.

I do not find it reasonable to make patients with addiction histories endure pain that would be treated in other patients.  Father than singling out some patients for ‘special non-treatment,’ we should prepare for the risks from opioids in ALL patients—a set of ‘universal precautions for opioid treatment,’ similar to the way we use a different set of universal precautions to avoid transmission of blood-borne infections.

There are times when doctors have to tolerate being the bad guys.  Some patients have been taught, through careless prescribing, that all pain should be treated with narcotics. Those patients are not happy when told, after paying several hundred dollars, that they do not ‘need’ narcotic pain medication– and so many of their doctors have a hard time saying ‘no.’ After all, doctors studied hard to do well in school, and usually receive praise for what they do. It is much easier to write a prescription and hear ‘thank you’ than to be called an unsympathetic jerk! But doctors are paid the big bucks to tolerate such things, and to keep the long-term health of patients in mind. And for many people with chronic pain, opioids will provide a good month or two, but for the price of many years of misery.

I’ve been told by patients “I don’t care about the risks, doc– I’d rather have three good months and then die, then have twenty years in pain.” I reply, “that’s why these medications require a doctor to consider things very carefully, and a good doctor would not allow someone to make that decision.” I’m sure that some people will be angered by that attitude. But the approach is similar to how we handle many other illnesses, where we encourage patients to tolerate short-term misery for long-term benefits. Many patients would refuse chemotherapy and give up on life if not pushed to move forward. And to depressed patients, suicide can appear a reasonable option. I’m a fan of free will, but I recognize that we don’t always choose our paths through life with full insight.

Even with full knowledge of the reasons to avoid narcotics, some doctors really struggle over withholding opioids.  I find it somewhat ironic that the doctors who are too ‘kind-hearted’—i.e. who want to please patients so much that they cannot deny even that which is bad for them—are the ones who end up getting into trouble.  The Iowa doctor is being sued over several of the deaths, likely by relatives of the patients who pled the hardest for pain pills!  Talk about good deeds not going unpunished!

But there are aspects of the case in Iowa that do not argue well for the doctor. Several of the patients who died were only seen once, but treated with narcotics for years. The DEA requires that patients are prescribed no more than 90 days of narcotic medication at one time (divided on three monthly prescriptions). I presume that patients were picking up scripts every three months, without having appointments each time. Such a practice is not strictly illegal (not that I am aware of, anyway), but the standard of care would be to evaluate patients on potent opioids every three months, or even more frequently. And one news article stated that the doctor had tens of thousands of pain patients. As a full-time practitioner with less than 1000 patients, I wonder how so many patients could be managed by one physician.

When I write about this topic I receive angry comments from some readers. Some attack me personally with comments like “I’m glad I’m not YOUR patient!” or “I hope YOU have to suffer with horrible pain some day!” I realize that this is a very hot topic, and my only intent is to educate and inform, to help people understand what is happening in the minds of physicians. Of course, the care of patients should not be determined by the need for doctors to protect their own interests. But at the same time, it is understandable that doctors are affected by headlines announcing the imprisonment of other doctors facing the same treatment decisions.

Bottom line– there are very good reasons to avoid using opioids for nonmalignant chronic pain. Just giving patients what they want, and ignoring the danger of opioids, will likely result in criminal and civil prosecution. But that reason is secondary to the most important thing– the promise all doctors make to first, do no harm. And patients should realize that their doctors may be withholding narcotics for that reason alone.

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