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ACA OR SINGLE PAYER? ACTUALLY, THAT ISN’T THE QUESTION

In the chaos of our present—and proposed—health care systems, it may seem strange to those who know me that I would speak strongly against repealing the Affordable Care Act in order to set up a Single Payer System. I am not even going to address the miserable excuses for alternatives to the ACA that our congress-turned-one party-turned-a handful-of-old-white-males tried to foist on our already suffering nation. That is not worth my time, much less yours. So let’s look at what we have (or what is left of it), versus what a growing number of our fellow Americans are claiming to want.

The Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare.” What is wrong with it? Well, since I am old enough to remember congressional debates and media discussions about it, let me share one clear memory. A certain congressman or senator (I am not here to name names and add to the hostilities) stood in front of his peers, with a binder of papers almost a foot high. That was the ACA, which congress was supposed to stop stalling and cast their votes for or against. The legislator was angry, as he slammed the binder down and asked how many had even read the proposed law. Then he stated that no one could possibly have read such a lengthy and dense document. It had been added to indiscriminately, without enough discussion to make certain that there were no contradictory sections of it. Yet our lawmakers were called upon to vote, and vote they would. And they did, and the Frankenstein monster they created was passed. And some named it Obamacare, in not very subtle derision. Then those same people hated it all the more because it carried Obama’s name. Just an aside: Some of us social science types stated in no uncertain terms that those old white Southern men in Congress were determined that no black man would tell them what to do, and they would do nothing to promote anything he tried to do. “Too harsh of you” others shushed us. Still think so?

Moving on, at the other end of the continuum of political positions we find another “older” white man (I say “older” because I am older than he is, and I don’t want to downplay his energy and passion for his job by putting him in the same age category as me and the old white Southern men). Unlike his counterparts in Congress, he has worked and fought tirelessly to benefit the nation. Actually, I err by pushing him all the way to the left end of the continuum. He is a Liberal, yes—a social democrat. By the way, have you read the biblical book Acts of the Apostles? The part where it describes how communities of Christians lived? They joined the community by pitching in all of their money and other resources, and everyone in the community lived on the combined wealth: “To each, according to his need,” regardless of financial contribution, or lack thereof.

I digress. Sorry. The social democrat of whom I speak has called repeatedly and passionately for Single Payer Insurance, and whether or not it was intentionally in the spirit of the Book of Acts, it was certainly in the spirit of “all {men} are created equal, and endowed with certain rights.” I can’t fault his reasoning for wanting National Health Care (that is what we are actually talking about), but I am very afraid that it is misplaced in time.

Having experienced National Health Care when I was injured in Israel, I can say that I know at least some of its problems. Having experienced National Health Care in South Africa for seven years, I also know many of the benefits. In the former situation, at the age of 43 I fell off of a mountain in Israel and broke my ankle in three places, anteriorly displaced the ankle, and pulled a major tendon off the bone so cleanly there was no bone left on it to regrow and heal in place. My Harvard-trained Israeli physician refused to operate. “You are too old” he told me, “and regardless you will be in a leg brace for the rest of your life.” I could not get a second opinion, nor could I afford to pay cash if he would have done the surgery despite his recommendation. So I called the orthopedic surgeon back in the States with whom I had worked, flew home after a lengthy search for an airline that would take me, and I haven’t ever worn a brace. I do have to admit, being told I was too old to have my broken ankle fixed was almost as traumatic as the injury.

On the other hand, in South Africa for seven years a very reasonable deduction was made from my paycheck to pay for National Health Insurance. I was hospitalized once for three days and paid not a cent; saw 2 or 3 doctors of my choice at any given time and never paid more than $10 copay for a visit, and not more than $2.00 (I am using US equivalents to the Rand, at the time) for medicine. I was well taken care of, even when I suffered a bout of pneumonia, and never had concerns about what would happen to me. The big problem in South Africa, of course, was that “National Health Care” only applied to people who had jobs, or whose employers paid into the system. Others were given cash at the end of a day, or a week, with no benefits. The color of their skin made all the difference.

So National Health Care is not always perfect. People in Canada seem to love it; in England, not so much, but they don’t hate it, either. Again, having the cash to pay for what the government won’t take care of always helps.

The point I have been working up to with all this foreplay is that National Health Care is only going to work when you have a government that is attuned to the needs of the nation it serves, and in some agreement or reasonable compromise about how best to serve those citizens. That does not even come close to describing our government. Putting them in charge of our health care, given their record of misgoverning for at least the past three decades, would be like putting a family of drug dealers in charge of a national pharmacy. The knowledge and expertise—even the Will–required to make good financial decisions about medical care for ALL citizens simply does not exist in our political system.

PLEASE!!! DO NOT EVEN CONSIDER NATIONAL HEALTH CARE IN THIS COUNTRY UNTIL WE CAN CARE FOR EACH OTHER, AND HAVE THE GOOD SENSE TO ELECT A GOVERNMENT WE CAN TRUST TO ACT AS ONE “BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE” ETC.

We HAVE a health care plan. It needs fixing.  SO FIX IT!!! Work together, work in the best interests of the citizens of this country who have, according to our constitution and bill of rights, the right to these good things. There is much more to say about this, but that is for another blog post. First, and foremost, I say to the members of Congress: Do your jobs, fix the mess caused by earlier versions of your peers, and get together like real human beings and give us back our beloved country–the one where we were finally just beginning to accomplish equal rights for everyone.


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AN UPDATE FOR FAMILY, FRIENDS, AND THE MERELY CURIOUS

 

For months, now, I have neglected to write or keep up with you. There have been several reasons for this—ironically, none of them due to continued chronic pain. I no sooner reached the point of finally having my 45-year battle with chronic back, neck, shoulders, hands and feet pain under control, than I developed a cardiac problem serious enough to make normal functioning very difficult. At the same time, I had taken on three adjunct courses a semester in the mistaken belief that my new pain-free status would allow more activity. To make a long story short, my intolerance for many medications complicated everything, cost me a fortune at the pharmacy, and greatly reduced my newfound activity tolerance.   It has been one hellacious year, in other words.

Make no mistake. I still love teaching, and I still found that the time spent in the classroom or in my office with students on any given day was the best antidote to pain, and now also to cardiac problems and their side effects. It was only that the long hours of preparation and grading papers, along with the difficulties of getting around the university with a backpack filled with books, etc., rapidly undid all the good of the time spent in the classroom. Not that time spent in the classroom wasn’t worth it—but over time I developed a roller-coaster life with all the emotional and physical ups and downs.

Additionally, the rapidly increasing cost of living, plus my medical costs, had finally totally depleted my savings. Obviously, my social security and wages from being an adjunct were not going to suffice, and now the summer break without any adjunct income was looming. Should anyone ever question the fuel driving the anxiety and chronic pain cycle, I can document it, and add that the combination doesn’t do much for cardiac problems, either. By the end of the second semester I began having chronic pain from multiple arthritis sites. Thankfully, none of the nerve pain has recurred. But I knew it was time to look for more work for additional income, nevertheless.

I have always loved that verse from the Psalms that says “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” So many times past, deep into the darkness of whatever crisis was facing me, that verse would eventually be brought to my attention. And when it was, the promised joy and relief from the crisis would begin and move steadily toward resolution. Always. And it has happened again.

Strangely—perhaps even ironically—it was not my PhD in Sociology that was the sole credential for my new part time job. Most of you know how I loved working in medicine and finally being a nurse, before going back to school for my Sociology degree. It was that, and probably my experience with chronic pain as both advocate for patients and a patient myself, that resulted in my new job. For the past six weeks, I have been truly blessed to work 4 days a week in a pain management clinic. From day one, I have felt the joy and freedom of doing what I have always loved best, along with the capacity to use the sociological skills and information gained later in life. I do not have the ability to explain how richly this fulfillment has affected my life, including my physical abilities. I truly believe that every day of my life, every experience, has brought me to this time and place. And the joy is not limited to the immediate experience of interacting with the patients I have already begun to love, but it extends around the clock, and through the week. My exercise tolerance has improved; my arthritis pain has subsided; and my blood sugar is manageable again after a long period of ups and downs. My cardiac problems are no longer debilitating, and I rest better at night. Despite the uncertainty of life in our country, especially for pain patients and others who are most vulnerable, I retain the joy of this new situation and all that it means to me.

My gratitude for this blessed gift is pre-ordained, of course. My advocacy for pain patients, and for those pain management physicians who daily manage the tightrope walk between patient need and over-reaching government regulations, will be taking on a new life. Expect new articles on this site about the real history of drug abuse, pain and addiction in the future. Expect new energy to keep up with what is happening in the failed War on Drugs, and the failing efforts to kick-start it again with the scare-mongering about the prescription opioid epidemic (which, I point out frequently, is deliberately worded to look like it is caused by a. doctors, and/or b. pain patients.)

While I have not specifically stated it, I would like to assert at this point that there is an element to pain management that is sometimes ignored, sometimes over-advertised as a panacea for all ills, and sometimes actually realized in the lives of those who believe. I do believe, from vast experience, that God answers prayer—even when the answer is a firm “no.” I also believe that what we experience in life, both positive and negative, are the true elements of living that make us mature and strong, or they break us. Most of the time, that choice is our own. Especially when God says no.   He said no to me a lot, yet I have been privileged to enjoy incredible blessings, including healing from physical and emotional trauma, and experiences that have enriched my life beyond belief. I would not overlook the role of faith in healing, in guidance through life experiences, or in provision for meaningful relationships and work.

Much love and blessings to you all, and may your walk through life provide you with blessings, rich relationships, and purposeful work. And may your relationship with your God always guide you through it.

Peace,

Marylee


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REFLECTIONS ON THE EFFICACY OF OPIOID PAIN RELIEF OVER TIME

pain photoBefore addressing the issues of this article, I will need to explain the position from which I write. At the present time I am a 76-year old, semi-retired sociologist and former nurse. As a sociologist, it was natural for me to include the sociology of medicine as one of my major interests. As a nurse, I worked for three years in the county jail nurse’s office, several years in the emergency room, and for six years as a hospital corpsman in the navy reserve.

I was introduced to the whole drug scene while working in the jail, where it was my job to treat substance abusers who were addicted to paint, glue, alcohol, and various drugs. This was in the very early ‘80s, and the majority of the street drugs were amphetamines, Quaaludes, heroin, and marijuana. It was necessary to control withdrawal symptoms from the time the inmates were booked, to keep them alive long enough to go to court, serve whatever time they were given, and be released back into the same environment with virtually no change in their lives except those imposed on felons. The recidivism rate was extremely high—more so than for any other offense. During the time I worked there, the fastest turn-around rate for a released prisoner being picked up drunk and brought back in to Booking was 30 minutes.

Of course, in the ER and even in the Navy reserve I saw evidence of substance abuse. As a corpsman I was also involved with both diagnosis and treatment. The most heartbreaking experiences, however, occurred while I was working at a private college in Appalachia from 1997-2013. I saw firsthand the growth of the OxyContin and heroin epidemic that Sam Quinones documents in Dreamland, followed by Meth and various other prescription drugs, soon followed by the amoral pill mills that so delighted students who were already dependent or in early stages of addiction. At their age, they were the most vulnerable to the brain disorder of addiction, and the main targets of the dealers who would actually supply their first pills free, to encourage a new customer. I saw so many beautiful, bright students succumb to the promise of a pill that would make their life better, more fun, or at least easier. I was able to help some, but not all, by far. They needed experienced and trained medical attention, and I was no longer in that field. I came to despise the very thought of drugs, dealers, and pill mill “doctors”.

But there is another side to my story. In 1968 I suffered the first experience of a bulging spinal disc. Within 3 years I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, and with osteoarthritis of the spine, hands, feet, shoulders and hips. By 2013, there was no part of my spine that was not affected; I had major stenosis at various levels, bone spurs, episodes of bulging and decayed discs, a vertebra that had decayed discs on both sides and was standing on edge, resulting in a spinal S-curve from my waist to the upper thoracic region. Unrelenting pain caused muscle spasms in my entire back and neck, adding to the pain. A meningioma would soon be discovered attached to my spinal cord at T3-4; it is benign—the only worry being that it will grow.

During those 45 years living with pain, I never had any medication stronger than NSAIDS. Like many patients, I could not tolerate narcotics or opioids. I had to learn meditation and “mind control” (pushing the awareness of pain to another part of my consciousness). I had a great deal of physical therapy. I played the piano and organ for distraction, until I could not. I walked from 1-3 miles every day, and I worked full time as a nurse, then as a college professor, usually working between 40-60 hours a week. I spent seven years in South Africa in the middle of a revolution. The more I could distract myself with external demands, the longer I could function. Again, until I could not.

In 2014, so disabled by pain I could neither work nor sufficiently care for myself, I was sent to a pain management specialist in Louisville, KY. After I was finally convinced that he was a legitimate pain specialist who would not try to get me addicted, we were able to work together very well. I learned to trust his judgement, and to follow his lead in determining my treatment.   As a result, I have been able to teach at a local university part time for the last two years, and it has been a year since I have had pain greater than 5 on the 0-10 scale. One of the reasons that the pain has not been greater, and has not persisted, is that when it gets to that point I take hydrocodone, at its very lowest dose. My pain doctor realized that I am able to tolerate very low doses of medications for other problems (many of which were caused or exacerbated by long-term use of NSAIDS), so we tried the opiate. The complete pain relief has been astounding to me. I have never before had medication do more than take the edge off the pain. Equally important, my need for the opiate is becoming less and less frequent. My chronic anxiety levels have dropped considerably, and that also is a source of pain relief.

Which brings me, finally, to the point of this article. I hope I have sufficiently established the experience and credentials that give me the foundation for writing it. I must write it, because for too long I have been reading articles by people who have based their judgement about the dangers and/or efficacy of opiate treatment for pain on short-term, inadequate research. In A World of Hurt, by Barry Meier, he quotes Dr. Jayne Ballantyne as saying that her studies, and those of others, show that after a short term of therapy, there is little to no efficacy (5% of patients) of opiates for pain. I have seen and heard these figures often; yet pain management physicians also have records of people who have been carefully managed on opiates and other pain relieving measures for at least twenty years, who are functioning without severe pain. None of these studies satisfy me that they meet the natural science or sociological requirements of longitudinal studies. The former studies fall far short of twenty years, and the latter are a matter of record but no sufficiently rigorous scientific research has been done to establish credibility.

Additionally, our understanding of the prevalence and range of chronic pain issues, and the new brain studies that have completely revised our knowledge of addiction, have rendered those studies irrelevant. But the continued widespread references to them has created a situation that is clearly morally and ethically bankrupt: Patients with persistent, severe pain—including, in many states, terminal cancer patients—are being deliberately, systematically deprived of relief and therefore from the ability to lead potentially productive lives, or at least to spend their final days in peace, without pain. This, while other substances that are addictive are legal and can be consumed by any adult, regardless of their risk factors for addiction, whether or not there is a “need” for the substance.

What would make opiate efficacy studies reliable and verifiable? First, to acknowledge that all pain patients are unique in their tolerance to pain, their response to pain, and their response to treatment. Not everyone can metabolize medications the same way. Not everyone responds equally to physical therapy, or to psychological counselling. Not everyone has the personality to effectively meditate, or to suppress awareness of moderate pain. But all of these treatments, as well as known risk factors, are variables that must be accounted for if you are judging the efficacy of pain treatment.

Then there is the issue of the selection of participants. When I read the studies done in past years, I found they were limited to a single practice, or a hospital, or other small group of patients with no concern for variables like age, risk factors, history of abuse, previous treatment and other illnesses. The participants were not chosen scientifically in order to be representative, so results are inevitably skewed. I am reminded of early anthropological ethnographic studies where small, isolated villages were researched, then the results extrapolated to all such groups: “from the particular to the general”. We now realize that you can’t do this and arrive at accurate conclusions. Yet, on the basis of these flawed opiate efficacy studies, people’s lives are being damaged, their families are suffering needlessly, and many patients who are cut off from their medication either take to street drugs with the risk of overdose, or just commit suicide in the first place.

We do need more research about the safety and efficacy of drugs. But it must be longitudinal and scientifically designed and the results assessed to be reliable and verifiable. We also need politicians to stop enacting laws and policies based on moral definitions of issues, which we can never come to consensus about, and work on the actual economic and environmental issues that they can actually improve.

Addiction is a disease, not a moral issue. Pain is a disease, not a moral issue. And we are not speaking of just a few people affected by the neglect resulting from ill-informed laws and regulations designed more to punish the innocent along with the guilty rather than to end the War on Drugs. We speak of hundreds of thousands, even millions of sufferers. When properly identified as scientific (medical) problems instead of moral issues, we can see the potential to improve conditions. People could be adding to the economy, rather than being forced to either live off of it, or to live in poverty while their pain continues to worsen.

Big Pharma—for example, Purdue Pharma– are far from innocent in this War. Additionally, the FDA is no longer as concerned with protecting potential patients as they are in protecting corporate rights to profit; witness the countless lawsuits for drugs improperly researched, improperly advertised, and improperly presented to physicians who must rely on that information in order to prescribe successfully. And the DEA is still, regardless of evidence that they are often destroying the lives of the innocent while failing to halt the spread of illegal drugs, using pain patients and their physicians as cannon fodder in their failed war on drugs.

A significant paradigm shift is required here. Educationally, culturally, legally and morally we must illuminate the darkness of our willful ignorance about the suffering of the innocent who have become scapegoats in the failed War on Drugs due to tunnel vision about the relationships between drugs, physicians, and pain; a tunnel vision that cannot see the greed and political will that perpetuates the drug problem. Every institution of our society has failed our physicians and their patients who are in pain, or addicted. Those institutions have either failed to adjust a false worldview that blames patients for their illnesses, or have just failed to assume responsibility for their role in finding solutions to the need for a collaborative approach to these widespread diseases, and to the devastation that has resulted from long term beliefs that they are moral issues that must be punished.

For over a century, that approach has not worked. And as the saying goes, insanity is defined as continuing to do the same thing over and over again (or doing even more of it), expecting different results. From family, to education, to religion, culture, economics and government we need a major overhaul of outdated and inaccurate beliefs, and development of procedures that decriminalize the treatment of chronic pain and addiction, as well as the afflictions themselves. Medical decisions need to be made by medical experts and their appropriate medical agencies, and the Criminal Justice system could concentrate on ridding our nation of illegal drugs by putting the same time and effort into stopping the dealers who daily increase the supply of drugs available on our streets. We might even look to the successes of other countries, and determine if their methods are importable.

I cannot bear the thought of more bright and beautiful college students ruining or ending their lives before they have even begun. The data suggests that it is not stopping with college students, but that high school and even middle school students are being targeted as “customers” of the illegal drug trade. I also cannot live with the knowledge that caring and dedicated physicians, who have spent nearly half of an average 70 year lifetime studying and working for the privilege of becoming practicing physicians, have lost everything they have worked for because they have tried to help their patients. (I am quite ok with pill mill “doctors” being brought to justice for their crimes, however!)

It is Christmas Eve as I write this. A time of hope, a time of expectation that the promises of life can be fulfilled. I am a sociologist because I believe in the amazing capability of human beings to solve the problems of life, separately and together. I am also all too well aware of our capability to create and maintain cultural and social institutions and structures that protect certain groups of humans at the expense of huge numbers of their fellow humans. I believe that most of us are better than this; that we can do better, and that bit by bit we can learn to adapt to change, to each other, and to the requirements of living in our world safely, together.

Please—let’s make 2017 the year we begin to deal with chronic pain and addiction as the disease processes they are, and begin to structure our corporate life accordingly, so that together we can end the war on drugs, and on patients and their physicians, and restore the rationality of the Enlightenment without killing the compassion of empathy.

enlifghtened being

RESOURCES: Books & Peer Reviewed Articles

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. 2012. The New Press, NY

Bateman, Dustin. Neurological & Sociological Aspects of Addiction.

Bertram, Eva and Morrris Blachman. Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial. 1996. University of California Press.

Levinthal, Charles F. Messengers of Paradise. Opiates and the Brain. The Struggle Over Pain, Rage, Uncertainty and Addiction.

Meier, Barry. A World of Hurt: Fixing Pain Medicine’s Biggest Mistake. 2013. New York Times Company.

Parsons, Talcott. “Illness and the Role of the Physician: A Sociological Perspective.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 24 March 2010. Copyright © 2010, John Wiley and Sons.

Quinones, Sam. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. 2015. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Sternheimer, Karen. Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture:   Why Media is not the Answer.  2nd Ed. 2013. Westview Press, Perseus Books Group.

Webster, Lynn R. The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain is Really Like and Why it Matters to Each of Us.  2015  Webster Media, LLC.

Hyperlinks to articles on Web:

Addiction is a Brain Disease http://www.attcnetwork.org/explore/priorityareas/science/disease/

Pain Medicine News – How Did We Get Here? http://www.painmedicinenews.com/ViewArticle.aspx?d=Guest%2BEditorial&d_id=351&i=March+2014&i_id=1042&a_id=26043&tab=MostEmailed#.U3PLVV6vdyI.twitter 

Report: Chronic, Undertreated Pain Affects 116 Million Americans http://ti.me/AAfT7q  via @TIMEHealth

New Pain Management Rules Leave Patients Hurting http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2016035307_pain28m.html#.U2mA77bwJzQ.twitter 

Chronic Undertreated pain affects 116 million Americans: http://healthland.time.com/2011/06/29/report-chronic-undertreated-pain-affects-116-million-americans/

Our Fear of Opioids Leaves the world in Pain http://edsinfo.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/our-fear-of-opioids-leaves-the-world-in-pain/

MT @toni_bernhard: My new piece. It should be of interest to anyone whose illness is questioned: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/turning-straw-gold/201410/i-m-sick-what-is-wrong-me …Dr. Paul Christo @DrPaulChristo  ·  Oct 27

California Doctor….   http://paindr.com/california-doctor-unveils-painful-abyss-facing-patients-in-pain/

Physician Suicide http://t.co/4vhF63eD6N

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  35. Andrew LB. PHPs Are in Your Corner. Emergency Physician Monthly Online. 2006;13:6:[Full Text].

Physician Risks

The damage done by the war on opioids: the pendulum has swung too far http://www.dovepress.com/articles.php?article_id=16781 …

Trial Verdict: Dr. Baldi Not Guilty on All Charges http://whotv.com/2014/05/01/baldi-trial-not-guilty-on-all-charges/

What are Patients to do when Law Enforcement Closes Clinics? http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/ravalli-county-health-officer-says-patients-of-raided-florence-clinic/article_cf2e1690-bac0-11e3-848e-001a4bcf887a.html

Killing Pain in Perry county http://www.kentucky.com/2009/12/12/1056711/killing-pain-in-perry-co.html

Patient role in helping physicians

“Unless patients wake up and fight for the providers of care, we are headed for the sickest system in the world.” http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2014/03/dissatisfied-doctors-provide-good-patient-care.html …

 

dr-murphyFrom James P. Murphy, MD, MMM;

Practicing Pain Management Physician

Board Certified in Pain Management & Addiction Management

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2014/04/25/the-dream-of-pain-care-enough-to-cope-the-seventeenth-r-dietz-wolfe-memorial-lecture/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2016/07/24/comparing-apples-to-apples-the-morphine-equivalent-daily-dose/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2016/06/21/prescribing-controlled-substances-in-kentucky-cme-presentation-for-flaget-memorial-hospital-in-bardstown-ky-june-21-2016/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2015/02/13/pathway-to-partnership/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2015/09/a-stellar-time-at-bellarmine

 


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THE PROBLEM OF PAIN

In his 1940 publication The Problem of Pain[i], C. S. Lewis includes the following paragraph:

The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends…..have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

While it is apparent that Lewis was writing primarily about the emotional pain and grief that we experience in life, he was also a chronic pain sufferer. For the majority of today’s chronic pain patients—including myself—the pain waxes and wanes, sometimes giving us a day or more of blessed freedom from pain, at other times causing us to simply curl up in bed and pray for the pain to go away. For those who are able to find the strength to live and be productive despite the pain, many are able to do so because they have been given sufficient moral support, alternative treatments, and pain medications that take the edge off the pain for a time.

It is so much easier to see those bright moments, those “pleasant inns” when everything is working and life is free of pain—whether physical, emotional, or psychological. We are able to enjoy the company of friends; to appreciate the beauty of a flock of geese in flight; to simply breathe in the pleasure of living. The future seems brighter, laughter comes easily, and one feels at home in the world again.

But even as Lewis warns that this happiness is not “home,” our own nature is to begin to fear the return of the pain; to want to do anything possible to ward off having to cope in the loneliness of being that is centered wholly on dealing with that enormous threat to well-being. To long for the freedom from this life-robbing, happiness-destroying monstrous condition that plagues our days and our nights.

We would do anything, give anything, to return to the easier state of merely coping, when all the treatments and medications make life at least possible, and occasionally happy. We begin to fear the return of pain so much that at the slightest threat of pain, we return to the medication that gives us relief and hope; we do this with our physician’s blessings so long as we do not abuse the prescribed rules of when, and how much, to use.

This is actually rational: to relieve the pain before it takes over the mind and body just makes sense, and prevents much worse episodes of pain with devastating effects on the physical and mental condition of the patient. To lengthen the periods of less pain and shorten the periods of intense pain is the goal of pain management for most patients.

However, that goal has been usurped and denied by federal and state governments who want us to believe that the War on Drugs is best served by taking pain relieving medications from the people who need it most, in order to punish the people who sell illegal drugs and those who abuse legal or illegal drugs. We are not impressed with this kind of logic.

A couple of weeks ago, as I entered the waiting area of my pharmacy, the only other occupant spoke up once I was settled in and inquired if I noticed how cold it was in the building. I noted that he appeared to be my age or younger, was very thin, wearing a light jacket on a typical hot day in this region. I replied that I had just come from an air conditioned car, so had not noticed the temperature in the building yet. He went on to tell me that he was a cancer patient, and that two years previously he was told he would probably not live more than two years.

In the past three months he had lost 60 pounds. He was not allowed to have his opioid pain medication anymore because he had two alternative pain medications, which were no longer helping him.  He went on about his wife who was also very ill, and how difficult it was to take care of himself and his wife with no help. Suddenly he bent over, head in his hands, and began to sob. “I just wish that someone would put me out of my misery,” he almost whispered.

I moved over to the seat next to him and began to gently rub his shoulders (with his permission). I didn’t talk, because I was too overwhelmed with anger and pain for this man’s unnecessary suffering.The changes in the opioid regulations are egregious enough when applied to pain patients, but since when were cancer patients no longer exempt from this kind of torture? 

I listened to him, and was sorely tempted to give him my pain medication—but that would not help anyone and could potentially do great harm. So I seethed with frustration at my inability to do anything to ease his pain, and recalled the days in the not so distant past when I suffered those same feelings, when I was unable to take medication for the chronic pain that had finally become unbearable and disabling. (My subsequent encounter with a pain management specialist, resulting in my return to the “real” world, has been written elsewhere on this site).

Eventually his tears ceased, and he was notified that his meds were ready to pick up. He left, and I was alone with my anger, and my guilt for no longer suffering as this stranger suffered. Probably, I had never suffered to the extent that he suffered, because pain is not the same for every patient, nor is it relieved in the same way for every patient. Plus, I only had myself to care for, without the additional pain of needing to care for a loved one.

I swung between the longing to run out of the pharmacy and shout my anger and frustration to the world, and the dark experience of powerlessness in the face of known legislative deafness and blindness.  In such a dark mood, I had no expectation of experiencing the opportunity for a pleasant, albeit brief, stay in one of Lewis’ “pleasant inns.” In truth, I probably would have snarled at anyone who suggested that I look for the brighter side of life.

Of course, the next day I was back at the university, teaching my classes and reveling in the sheer pleasure of the gift of returned productivity that allowed me to enjoy this beloved activity. As time went by, I was reminded that this joy was a mere stop in the road trip of my life; I would not be able to continue doing it for many years, or even months, more.

I thanked God for the reminder that I could not stay in this happy, even joyful state forever. There are still battles over injustices in our world that must be dealt with, and times of personal pain and darkness. They are just as necessary as the joyful times, if we are to be responsible, productive citizens of our world.  May we not forget to appreciate the precious times of joy because of the problem of pain. Nor let us forget the needs of the oppressed and suffering while we rest in “pleasant inns.”

 [i] Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain 1940 Centenary Press, London

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COLLEGE STUDENTS GIVE MY LIFE MEANING

bare tree

The university academic year begins for me this week, and—not for the first time—my thoughts are heavy with the implications of the grave responsibility of educating the young. This year, though, seems to weigh heavy on my heart more than any such year in the past, with the possible exception of the years in South Africa during the end of apartheid and the first years of democracy. It could even be because of those years, and the comparisons that can be made between South Africa then, and the United States now, that my concern is great.

Of course, no comparative study would find a perfect correlation between the two countries. But there are many similarities, especially when observing the issues of race, intolerance, social injustice, disenfranchisement, rule of a power elite—I could go on, but already it become obvious that there are points to be made, as well as huge differences in the two situations. Can anything be learned from the past in another country, that would shed light on a way forward for us in the present?

My course load this semester consists of Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Social Theory, and Political Anthropology. All three courses contain a great deal of material that directly relates to August 2016 in the United States. Some of these situations, like the failed war on drugs and its ongoing, devastating aftermath, do not appear to be related to anything that occurred in South Africa. But when you look deeper at the combinations of political misinformation, low intensity violence incited deliberately by the government, and antipathy between police and the often innocent subjects of their brutality, a shared trend appears.

In fact, one can see that the troubles in both nations were not caused by failed societal structures so much as by a shared failed personal accountability for human actions. I always try to find an opportunity to explain to my students why it is true that to the extent we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. And the more often that we do that, the less human we become. At some point, it no longer matters who we hurt, or how much we hurt them. Having reached that point, nothing is sacred—we can lie to each other, cheat in personal and public relationships, and shame our religious traditions by turning them inside out and using them against each other, rather than in enjoyment of the sacredness of our existence. Some people blame this on the capitalist profit motive; I blame it on unrestrained greed grown to inhumane size, however you want to rationalize it.

Our inhumane behavior is seen in social media pages, day after day. Many posts are deliberate lies, some are propagated by people and organizations who make a great deal of money developing the ways and means of destroying political opponents, or spreading ideas in order to challenge inconvenient truths about how we should live. Our youth often do not trust our government, our news media, or our religious leaders. We have an entire generation of youth who have grown up in the midst of uncontrolled verbal and media bile, day after day. Yet many parents and teachers are still able to reflect the values of integrity and community to their children; too many others have failed.

I don’t want to be one of those who fail those precious young people. It would be safe for me to just present the information in the texts as is, and avoid controversy. Unfortunately, sociology and anthropology are not calculus. They exist to provide a learning situation whereby we may study, compare, theorize, and determine the state of our world, and consider possible ways to improve our situation and that of others. If we learn anything at all from these disciplines, it is that humans are not meant to live just for themselves. We are psychologically and mentally geared to living in community, from whence we learn our sameness as well as our beautiful uniqueness; where we learn to share, to care for others, and to be cared for. It is where we discover the meaning of our lives, as Victor Frankl explains so beautifully.

On the surface, our country is in what Durkheim would call a state of anomie; of “normlessness.” There are too many who live by disregarding the norms of human interactions, of human responsibility. The rest of us are not free of responsibility for this state of affairs. The rapidity of progress has allowed us all to enjoy an unprecedented mobility, separation from family and old friends, from the norms that defined our lives when we were young people. The sense of normlessness that has grown has produced political and religious apathy, as our values as a nation have withered into weapons for some groups to hurl at others in hatred.

It could appear that all is lost. It is not. We can, and must, regain our humanity by treating others as the precious human beings they were meant to be. We cannot separate ourselves from community, especially from communities of meaning. We can look to the examples of those around us who are good people, who live honestly and compassionately. We can seek justice for those whose lives have been broken by injustice.

…..We can demand from our government leaders the same values that we hold for ourselves, and make sure not to repeat errors in judgement on that score.

….. We can bring family life back into vogue, securing the early years of our children with the nuts and bolts of honesty, responsibility, and community.

….. We can demand improvements in our education systems so that our children learn to think, not just to memorize.

And we can treat the people we run into each and every day as though they were human beings like ourselves: imperfect, yet full of potential; sacred to their Creator and therefore sacred to ourselves. Deserving of respect—enough so as to inspire those who have none for themselves to strive for improvement.

 

……Yes, this is indeed a heavy responsibility to owe to the students in my classroom. But why else would I even want to be there? The intergenerational discussions and learning that will take place give my life meaning. My students, who are also my teachers, are the joy of my life. When I meet with them again, that “heavy responsibility” will be rediscovered as a great privilege. So begins another year.

classroom


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RESPONSE TO DR. JEFFREY FUDIN’S REQUEST

In Dr. Fudin’s post today, comPASSION Fatigue https://t.co/rilJGgQxFG , he defines Compassion Fatigue as “essentially a form of burnout common to those of us who actually care.” He and his co-author explain the problems of advocating for good care for chronic pain patients while navigating the endless stream of misinformation, outright lies, overreaching legislation and its advocates, and the inability to understand the differences between the illnesses of substance addiction, and the suffering of chronic pain patients. “[W]e continue as a society unable to hold two thoughts in our heads, the suffering of the addict now that rules the day and the suffering of the pain patient has been relegated to a bottom dweller,” the article states.

Since most fail to listen to anyone they do not agree with, and no one seems to care about truth in advertising, chronic pain advocates and their physicians (and pharmacists) grow disillusioned and weary of the task. I urge the reader to use the link above to read this very relevant article, where the authors make a much more articulate argument for the case than I have made here, as well as reporting important new information.

However, it is not my intention to simply report on the article or its excellence. The authors realistically ask a very relevant question: Is anyone out there still playing the game? Are we still actively advocating for chronic pain patients? My answer is difficult to write.

Having been an undertreated chronic pain patient for well over 40 years, as well as a nurse in a county jail who worked with police, substance abuse addicts, and drug dealers, I believe my claim to a broad understanding of the situation to be credible. I am also well trained in both statistical and qualitative research as a result of my graduate degrees. Yet I am repeatedly called out as ignorant, as a probable drug seeker, or as simply being wrong about everything. I do have pretty thick skin, having been an academic dean for several years, and while friends compliment me on my ability to persevere, my parents called it “stubbornness.” But so far, it has served me well.

Again, I hate to quit, or to give up on a good cause. But at my age I have learned to pick my battles. I have only so much energy, thanks to my years of pain and the many disease processes that have resulted from that pain.

At the same time, that last sentence explains exactly why I have chosen THIS battle, and I will not give up or shut up. You may not see me in writing as often, because I am tired and ill much of the time. But I will write, and I will talk, and I am definitely still in the game—just benched to rest a little more often. I am far from being alone in this situation, and I no more want to see hundreds of thousands of others suffer than I wish to suffer myself.

Meanwhile, here is a thanks to Dr. Jeff, and to all the compassionate pain management physicians (especially mineJ) who stay in the game despite all the prejudice, dishonesty and even the honest ignorance and misunderstanding that muddies the waters and stains our souls. Then too, the devastation of the lives ruined and lost unnecessarily because of undertreated or ignored pain, and the new rhetoric that is based on the notion that we are all alike and our pain should be treated the same, accordingly. And let us not forget to acknowledge those compassionate physicians who have lost so much after being targeted and charged by federal agents with no accountability for their actions when they were wrong.

I am beginning to ramble, so I end with this statement: The pain of burnout and the pain of disability cannot end this battle. It is too easy already for many to forget or deny the reality of our existence. Our voices must continue to compel the truth into being.

Talmud quote


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I AM NOT A ROBOT (not a Luddite, either)

robot pt

Last summer my beloved Mercury Milan decided to give me mechanical problems, for the first time in the five years I had owned it. It simply refused to start occasionally, without any causality that my mechanic or I could discover. After several nerve-wracking months of this (along with the inevitable and infuriating responses from mechanics: “It starts just fine for me”), I was ready to drive it into the Ohio River. It probably would not have started so I could get it there, though.

I finally convinced a mechanic at the dealership to put the car on the computer for diagnosis. As both a former nurse and present patient, I liked that word diagnosis, and had no qualms about using it for the vehicle I had anthropomorphized by naming it Mahitabel, projecting both positive and negative emotions and reactions on its “behavior,” and more recently developing a love/hate relationship with it. The diagnosis, according to the computer, was that on several occasions in the past few months someone had tried to start my car with a key that did not belong to the car. Therefore, it did not start.

It took about ten more minutes of questioning by the mechanic, who proposed the possibility that someone was trying to steal my car, and answers by me insisting that this made no sense at all, before he looked carefully at my car key. It was bent, and one tiny place may have been chipped. He made me a new key and my buddy Mahitabel and I have traveled together predictably and smoothly ever since.

My point? The computer (a machine) understood more about my car (a machine) than both the mechanic and the owner. Yet both the mechanic and the owner had to engage in some research and analysis on the human level before the “diagnosis” could be corrected and treatment applied. The computer supplied data based on its programmed knowledge of the vehicle; the humans provided the ability to utilize both inductive and deductive reasoning, applied to real-life, present-world situations, to ascertain the actual problem.

This brings me at last to the reason I am writing this post. Two years ago, I posted “The Healers,” in which I compared the observations and insights of an African traditional healer with the best of today’s physicians, noting that in each case the healer was most effective when working as a caring and observant human healer to a human patient. I concluded that computers could not take the place of any physician true to his or her calling https://www.maryleejames.com/2014/08/08/the-healers .

Two years later, I have more reason than ever to challenge the efficacy of computers in the exam room of a physician’s office. In fact, I would go so far as to say that along with insurance company rules and overreaching legislation intended to make physicians toe the (sometimes contradictory) lines drawn by groups of people who lack the training and calling of the physician, the present demands of computer program doctoring have the capability of being the last straw that finally destroys medicine as we know it.

As the title to this article insists, I am not a Luddite. I love technology, especially when it works. I love the capabilities of the internet, and the ability to keep up with friends and relatives both far and near. I enjoy being able to get online on a busy day and save myself hours of shopping, and have the desired object delivered to my door within 24 hours. I love needing an answer quickly, and finding it; needing an outline of resources for research, and locating them with ease. But it is also these answers and resources that become the problem. I have to exercise my ability to discern the junk from the credible; the scams from the honest reports, because all that this wonderful piece of machinery can provide me with is the data that has been entered, just like my experience with the computer at the car dealership. It can’t make human judgements for me. Without my education and my experience, the overwhelming amount of unquestioned data could get me into a lot of trouble.

Therefore, I am concerned about the time my physicians must spend entering data about me into a limited machine. I am a sociologist, after all, and acutely aware of the reality that whenever humans are the subject of analysis, results are immediately complicated by a lack of predictability, and of psychological understanding; accuracy is also complicated by the uniqueness of every human being and his or her response to a given situation, whether physical or otherwise. And no situation for any patient is completely within the realm of any one discipline. We are affected by more than our pain—we are emotionally affected by its consequences, or by outside considerations that have nothing to do with the pain, but that affect our lives. We are affected intellectually by our understanding of the meaning of the pain, and what it may mean for ourselves and those closest to us; this translates again into emotional effects, which may or may not complicate the situation of the pain and therefore any understanding of the real diagnosis and best treatment.

That only considers the tip of the iceberg. It is dehumanizing to both doctor and patient to reduce medical practice to the inadequate data that can be acquired from, or placed into, a machine. It is dehumanizing to try to explain one’s most frightening and intimate problems to someone who may never look you in the eye, or ask a question not required by the computer program. Especially when that computer operator is frustrated because he or she is not familiar with the program, or because it is not working properly. How do you know if the diagnosis or treatment is going to be safe and effective under these circumstances?

Worse, how do you trust that the information entered into that computer is correct? I can’t tell you how often I have read reports of my office visits only to wonder whose record has been confused with mine. I have read “patient states” something I not only did not state, but that wasn’t true. I have read reports of findings of physical examinations that never took place….and also failed to accurately reflect my physical condition at the time. Yet in years past—even after computers were commonplace—when doctors simply dictated their reports of office visits the results were informative, correct, and usable. I know, because for years I used to type up those dictated reports, and saw letters of thanks from recipients like other physicians, insurance companies, and physical therapists who were able to understand and make use of them.  I even learned a lot of medicine from their logical presentation of cause, effect and treatment.

Even more important, however, is the effect of human touch: The caring hand on a shoulder while explaining a difficult prognosis; the gentle holding of the hand of a terrified patient. The healing effects of caring human touch cannot be measured, and certainly cannot be replaced by a machine of any kind.

I do not propose to take computers away from medical practice, but only that the computers not take the physician away from medical practice. We were intelligent enough to invent computers, and I would hope that we would be intelligent enough to discern the times when their data gathering and sorting capability can be used to best advantage, while the very human, intuitive and caring abilities of our physicians remain in the human realm where they are most effective. Perhaps then physician suicides might drop from more than 400 each year, and more brilliant young people might consider the medical field desirable.

 We need human physicians, because we are not robots.

robot doc