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THE WAR ON DRUGS HAS BECOME THE WAR ON PHYSICIANS AND PATIENTS

The following article first appeared May 20, 2014 as a guest blog on Dr. Jeff Fudin’s http://paindr.com/blog/ website under the title Patients with Chronic Pain Syndromes are Not Idiots http://paindr.com/patients-with-chronic-pain-syndromes-are-not-idiots/.

From the early days of human habitation on this earth, societies have revered (and also feared) their healers. Even now, from Africa to South America, and wherever modern medicine is difficult to find, the skills and knowledge of healing have been passed from generation to generation of traditional healers. In rural areas of our own nation, many communities still seek medical assistance from ‘grannies” who rely on local herbs and traditional lore to help their neighbors.

So how has it happened that in the 21st century, one of the most technologically advanced nations on earth appears to be conducting a campaign against modern, trained and licensed physicians that echoes some ancient, primitive fear of the healer? We live in the age of Reason. We understand science, including anatomy and physiology, and understand that healers do not possess magic powers that might either hurt or heal us.

Despite this advanced understanding, we have allowed lawmakers and insurance companies to turn our healers into objects to be bullied, threatened, arrested and tried under charges of murder, with prosecutors demanding a death penalty when they have no evidence whatsoever that such a crime took place.[i]

After years of study and practice, sacrifice and struggle, 21st century physicians enter their professional world with dreams and aspirations already shattered. Many have student loans that limit their disposable income for many years into the future. Many more will find that the option of setting up a practice on their own is an unattainable dream – that they will be working for larger organizations and answering to employers who lack both medical degrees and understanding, where the bottom line is profit driven. All will have to deal with insurance companies that limit what they are able to do for their patients, no matter how much the patient might need the medication or procedure. Those companies have even at times contacted their patients, without the knowledge of the physician, and suggest other treatments or tell the patients to ask their doctors for a different treatment[ii]. Somebody tell me – have the laws against practicing medicine without a license been repealed?

And that is not the worst of it. Today, a physician who tries to treat patients according to the knowledge and skills that they worked so diligently to earn is now at risk of losing everything—their licenses, their homes and families, and even their own lives. ALL THIS, NOT BECAUSE THEY HAVE DONE ANYTHING WRONG!!! On the other hand, they can’t seem to do anything right. If law enforcement doesn’t destroy them, they are in danger of being robbed or even killed by drug-seeking patients. [iii]

I could easily believe that it is the failed war on drugs that has created the need for law enforcement to redirect our attention by turning the war against physicians – and their patients, who will suffer without medical care. Sociologists like myself frequently inquire “Who Benefits?” when deciphering seemingly irrational social behaviors. In this case, the lawmakers and enforcers themselves would look like people who would benefit from a better public image by this redirection of the public’s attention.

They say it is because the physicians prescribe too many “pills”, and turn their patients into addicts. Not true. Only a small percentage of patients who follow the orders given by the physician become addicted – addiction is a disease that occurs most often when drugs are abused, against medical advice. Most abused drugs do not come from physician’s prescriptions, but from families, friends, unsecured home supplies, or drug dealers.[iv] Dependency may occur, on the other hand, because people must depend on the medications that help them. Physical dependency is not unique to opioids alone, and can be resolved by tapering when the need for the medication is over. A similar approach is needed with several medication classes such as antidepressants to avoid serotonin withdrawal or beta blockers to avoid hypertensive crisis. Because lawmakers and others often incorrectly blend the lines, differences between physical dependence and withdrawal, we allow people and organizations with vested interests to feed our fears and turn us against the only people qualified to help us.

It is no wonder that over 80% of practicing physicians are reported to have stated that they do NOT want their children to become physicians. It is no wonder that more than 400 physicians are reported to commit suicide, annually.[v]

Why are they targeted, when they are not the problem? Let’s look at the real problem here: Addiction is real. Drug-related crime is real. Drug cartels that launder their profits and use some of the “cleaned” money to lobby politicians are real. Even MD degreed providers who misuse the privilege and set up “pill mills” are real (I refuse to call them physicians). There are solutions to all of these problems, and none of them include punishing physicians and other licensed clinicians with the goal of securing political points. We must stop making the problem worse, and focus on the real lawbreakers. We do know who they are!!

I write this letter, ironically, perhaps, because I am not able to take pain medications or many other drugs that could mitigate against the chronic pain that I have lived with for more than 45 years. Like many older people (who, by the way, may be less likely to become addicted to drugs because of the changes age brings to our physiology[vi]), chronic pain (from degenerative disc disease) has exacerbated other illnesses and ultimately severely limited my life. I have written this letter in gratitude for the four physicians who compassionately and patiently took the time to untangle and address the mingled symptoms that I presented with a few months ago, and who have given my life back to me despite my limited ability to process medications. (And yes – one of those four physicians is a board-certified pain management physician. There are other ways to manage pain when patients cannot take drugs.) With some understanding of what it must take to hold on to that compassion and professionalism in an irrational and vengeful world, I declare that these physicians, and physicians like them, are the true heroes of our day. We need to let them know.[vii]

ENDNOTES

[i] 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
Ex-doctor faces families in murder preliminary hearing http://www.news9.com/story/25395877/ex-doctor-faces-victims-families-in-murder-preliminary-hearing

[ii] Here I cite my own experience with the insurance company that covered my last place of employment. Over a period of several years, my colleagues and I received messages from the insurance company about changing our medications – such as when I was on a prescription medication for GERD, the company insisted that I must discontinue it and take an OTC medication because unless I did, they would discontinue payment on the prescriptions. We were also advised in frequent mailings to discuss alternative treatments with our physicians.

[iii] The damage done by the war on opioids: the pendulum has swung too far http://www.dovepress.com/articles.php?article_id=16781 …
Killing Pain in Perry county http://www.kentucky.com/2009/12/12/1056711/killing-pain-in-perry-co.html

[iv] “For this crisis physicians take the brunt of the pundits’ blame, despite the fact that more than two-thirds of the diverted medications are acquired from family, friends, and acquaintances – not from a prescription by their doctor. http://jamespmurphymd.com/2014/04/25/the-dream-of-pain-care-enough-to-cope-the-seventeenth-r-dietz-wolfe-memorial-lecture/

[v] Pain Physicians Have High Rates of Burnout http://goo.gl/P3z1cY
Dr. Gary Shearer: Suspended Northern Kentucky pain doctor dies of ‘suspected suicide’ http://www.wcpo.com/news/local-news/boone-county/florence/dr-gary-shearer-suspended-northern-kentucky-pain-doctor-dies-of-suspected-suicide

Physician Suicide http://t.co/4vhF63eD6NReferences from this article:
1.Adams D. Physician suicide: searching for answers. American Medical News [serial online]. April 25, 2005;Available at http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2005/04/25/prsa0425.htm.2.Center C, Davis M, Detre T, et al. Confronting depression and suicide in physicians: a consensus statement. JAMA. Jun 18 2003;289(23):3161-6. [Medline].
3.Hawton K, Malmberg A, Simkin S. Suicide in doctors. A psychological autopsy study. J Psychosom Res. Jul 2004;57(1):1-4. [Medline].
4.Holmes VF, Rich CL. Suicide Among Physicians. In: Blumenthal SJ, Kupfer DJ, eds. Suicide Over the Life Cycle. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press; 2004:599-618.
5.Middleton JL. Today I’m grieving a physician suicide. Ann Fam Med. May-Jun 2008;6(3):267-9. [Medline].
6.Noonan D. Doctors who kill themselves. Newsweek. Apr 28 2008;151(17):16. [Medline].
7.Petersen MR, Burnett CA. The suicide mortality of working physicians and dentists. Occup Med (Lond). Jan 2008;58(1):25-9. [Medline]. [Full Text].
8.Worley LL. Our fallen peers: a mandate for change. Acad Psychiatry. Jan-Feb 2008;32(1):8-12. [Medline].
9.Balch CM, Oreskovich MR, Dyrbye LN, et al. Personal consequences of malpractice lawsuits on American surgeons. J Am Coll Surg. Nov 2011;213(5):657-67. [Medline].
10.Hendin H, Maltsberger JT, Haas AP. A physician’s suicide. Am J Psychiatry. Dec 2003;160(12):2094-7. [Medline].
11.Shaw DL, Wedding D, Zeldow PB. Suicide among medical students and physicians, special problems of medical students. In: Wedding D, ed. Behavior and Medicine. 3rd ed. Hogrefe and Huber: 2001:78-9 (chap 6).

[vi] “indeed, bad choices, bad behavior, and drug misuse lead to crime, accidents, social instability, and addiction. The developing adolescent brain is particularly susceptible to addiction, while the elderly brain is practically immune.” http://jamespmurphymd.com/2014/04/25/the-dream-of-pain-care-enough-to-cope-the-seventeenth-r-dietz-wolfe-memorial-lecture/

[vii]“ 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 …


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Drs. Pohl and Kolodny, I Have Questions About Addiction, Dependency, and Drug Abuse

USA Today recently published an article about seniors and prescription drugs, with input from Dr. Mel Pohl and Dr. Andrew Kolodny to support the claims made in their opinion piece. (See: Seniors and Prescription Drugs: As Misuse Rises, So Does the Toll http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/20/seniors-addiction-prescription-drugs-painkillers/9277489/ ) Having read the article, I am left with several unanswered questions. I am herein addressing them to you, Dr. Pohl and Dr. Kolodny.

 In the video, the statement is made “We didn’t know what addiction was” but you never define addiction – nor for that matter, do you ever acknowledge how addiction differs from dependency, or even from drug abuse.  Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. The disease of addiction is a chronic condition that, without treatment, is progressive and can result in lifelong disability or death. The evidence from recent research on this is growing daily, and so is the evidence that treating chronic pain patients based on this information is increasing the success rates—success rates that you also fail to acknowledge.

Drug dependency, on the other hand, is reversible. Anyone can expect to become physically dependent on a drug they take for a long time; including, for example, diabetic medication, anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping pills, nasal sprays, beta blockers and other cardiac drugs, and many OTC drugs that are NOT prescription medications.  Withdrawal from dependency can be severe, but when it is over it is over. In contrast, the disease of addiction is a chronic condition that, without treatment, is progressive and can result in lifelong disability or death. 

Drug abuse describes behavior born of bad decision-making; not the disease of addiction. Almost all addicts have been physically dependent on drugs, but vastly fewer people who find themselves “physically dependent” on drugs (i.e. pain patients) are addicts.  When assessing your data on seniors who survived their youthful drug excesses in the 60’s, for example, did you consider this?

Also, did you consider that these same seniors know how to obtain street drugs and will do so if the option of pain control is removed?  Are you willing to share the responsibility of leaving your patients no choice but to engage in criminal behavior? Are you unable to acknowledge the reality that there are expert and courageous physicians who are willing to engage in the time-consuming (and, in the media fabricated maelstrom of opioid hysteria, even dangerous) battle for suffering patients against chronic pain? Will you ever acknowledge their successes?  Why do you bombastically lump all these conditions under the most alarming category of addiction?

Thoughtful physicians are taught to begin with the lowest dose, monitor their patients, and increase the dosage only as objective and subjective findings justify the increase. Why then, Doctor Kolodny, have you begun your treatment of this issue at the highest possible dosage of inflammatory rhetoric? Don’t you understand that each patient differs in their perception of pain, in their tolerance for pain, and in their response to medication and treatment?

And finally, you object to prescription opioid pain treatment but support the use of Tylenol (i.e. Acetaminophen) in patients with severe chronic pain.  Have you read the research on what acetaminophen does to the human liver? Doctor, have YOU ever experienced severe chronic pain with only acetaminophen for treatment?

The flaws and gaps in your ivory tower presentation are glaringly obvious.  You have failed to convince me that the best prevention for addiction is to never prescribe these drugs.  In some pain-free utopia that approach might work.  But we live, suffer, and die in the real world. Neither you, nor I, nor anyone will ever establish heaven on earth by banning pain drugs.

Why not treat this problem like you are supposed to treat pain. Let’s start with a remedy that has the greatest potential for benefit with the least amount of risk: 

Let’s educate ourselves about the proper use of these medications, the best treatments for pain, and the value of lifestyle optimization.

Perhaps my suggestion also sounds like a utopian prescription.  I am not naïve enough to believe you can eradicate abuse and addiction merely by educating the populous.  But it’s a better primary treatment for our drug problem than surgically removing all access to opioid pain care.  And 116 million chronic pain patients would not have to choose whether to suffer or become criminals.

Note:  I have shamelessly borrowed from the published research on this subject.  The information is out there. 

Chronic Pain Management with Opioids in Patients with Past or Current Substance Abuse Problems. Journal of Pharmacy Practice. 2003, 16;4:291-308.