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Curbing Prescription Addiction

April 21, 2011

It should come as no surprise to anyone that prescription drug abuse is a serious problem.  As if we needed any reminder, a flurry of articles recently hit the press, showing just how serious the problem is.  Opioids (narcotic pain medications like Vicodin, Oxycontin, methadone, etc) are the most widely prescribed drugs in America, according to IMS and to a recent survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and prescriptions can lead to misuse, abuse, and dependence.

Predictably, the government plans to get involved.  As the New York Times reported earlier this week, the Obama administration wants to create legislation “requiring doctors to undergo training” before being permitted to prescribe opioid pain meds.

Hearing “government” and “training” in the same sentence doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.  What will the “training” consist of?   An online seminar?  A paper-and-pencil exam from the DEA?  A separate section on “managing pain patients” in our Board Certification exams?

[And didn’t we do this already?  As a matter of fact, yes, we did:  Back in 2000, JCAHO (the “Joint Commission” which accredits healthcare organizations) required doctors to undergo training to recognize and treat pain disorders.  Back then, we were told that we weren’t treating pain often enough.  Maybe the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction?  Maybe we’ve done our job too well?]

With respect to the prevention of opioid abuse, I agree it’s a good idea for doctors to recognize the warning signs of addiction, to implement monitoring procedures (like random urine tests and treatment contracts), to deny early refills, and to inquire about other risk factors for abuse.  Sadly, many doctors don’t take these measures and need encouragement to do so.  But something tells me that simply providing government-mandated “prescriber education” won’t fix the problem.

In my opinion, there are two other important issues to be addressed before this “training” will prove to be useful.

The first is to get rid of existing inefficiencies.  The truth is, most doctors already know the proper steps for prescribing potentially abusable opioids to pain patients.  Some clinics (particularly pain clinics) follow these steps with all patients, simply as a matter of course.  But in most treatment settings these steps are difficult to take.  Regular urine monitoring is cumbersome and intrusive (although relatively inexpensive); generating a treatment contract takes time (although it’s arguably the most important “paperwork” of the appointment); and reviewing a patient’s full medication history is a challenge.  Moreover, most of our non-patient-care resources and personnel are devoted to billing and data entry, rather than in these ancillary services that, in the long run, are far more important to cost-effective patient care.

[A side note: many states provide a “prescription drug monitoring” service to permit doctors to view prescriptions for controlled substances that any patient has filled in that state.  However—at least in California—the application process takes 3-6 months, the data are typically delayed about 2-3 months, it does not include non-controlled drugs, and not all pharmacies participate.  It still blows my mind that for the last 10-15 years it has been easier to purchase airplane tickets online or to send computer files halfway around the globe than to determine whether the patient sitting in my office has filled a prescription for OxyContin in the last 90 days.  Simply improving the existing technology would be the most immediately beneficial step.]

The second—and, in my opinion, more important—item is for doctors to understand what is the goal of treatment.  Not just “relief of pain,” but when (if at all) can the treatment be said to be complete?  I’ve written about this before (see “When Does Treatment End?”), and I’m convinced it’s an important question not just in the treatment of pain but in the management of all conditions, even those we consider “chronic.”  I believe that all prescribers need to ask themselves, “How long will the patient need this medication?” and engage the patient in this discussion, too.

I frequently see patients who have been prescribed opioid pain medications, or benzodiazepines or stimulants (not to mention SSRIs or other psychiatric meds), who have no idea how long they’ll need to take them.  They just “got a script.”  And because these medications are highly reinforcing (they relieve pain or anxiety, and sometimes have a pleasant psychoactive effect as well), they’ll continue to ask for more.  Why shouldn’t they, since they were never told they should stop?

In any treatment setting, the patient and doctor should have a mutual understanding of the goals and likely duration of treatment.  This plan can (and should) be flexible, but it should always have some realistic end point.  Moreover, we should always measure our progress relative to that goal, rather than “kicking the can down the road” and letting someone else deal with the discontinuation of care later.  I don’t think doctors should be in the business of denying care to patients, but if we’ve already had the discussion of when treatment might end, the issue of “no” has already been raised, and the patient understands this.

How would this minimize the abuse of addictive medication?  For one thing, it would limit access to the drug because we, a priori, are refusing to provide an endless supply.  In turn, this helps the patient recognize that everything is being prescribed for a particular purpose, whether for the transient relief of post-op pain or the longer-term management of cancer pain.  If and when other symptoms emerge, they need to be discussed and treated separately—or a more comprehensive treatment plan should be developed, if the evolving symptoms fit a characteristic pattern.

I know this is a tall order, and these suggestions may be hard to implement in many of the places where narcotic prescribing is common (ERs, urgent care clinics, etc).  But they are important measures to take.  We need to take the steps we know we should take (rather than wait for the government to tell us to do so—because we know how that will turn out).  And we need to think about patients as people with the power to heal, and plan for the healing process to take place, rather than give knee-jerk reactions (i.e., prescriptions) for symptoms.  If we do this, patients will be less likely to take matters into their own hands and “self-medicate,” and the outcome of treatment will be better for all.

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