The Opioid Epidemic: It’s time to place blame where it belongs


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The media is full of stories about the current opioid crisis. But unlike many national crises, such as the Flint lead-contaminated water crisis, the focus is on solutions and not blame. A few weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for prescribing opioids in chronic pain, Congress approved funding for prevention and treatment, and the US HHS released a “National Pain Strategy.”

So to fulfill my duty as an American, allow me to place blame for our current opioid crisis. Allow me to start with physicians. We overprescribe opioids, just as we overprescribe antibiotics. But it is generally well meaning; we don’t want our patients to experience pain. Healthy Living magazine recently published a heart-wrenching story of a woman whose life was nearly destroyed by two weeks of oxycodone prescribed by a well-meaning physician for arthritis. These physicians can best be described as innocent bystanders. But “pill mill” doctors who set up shop, accept cash as the only payment and are willing to prescribe to anyone for any ailment, real or feigned, are criminals and need to be stopped. They cast a long shadow on the work of every other physician trying to help patients.

After the minor role of physicians come the real co-conspirators. First is Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Oxycontin. Despite a lack of increased efficacy in treating pain compared to older medications, Purdue mounted an aggressive marketing campaign that included a warning from the FDA in 2003 over misleading advertisements. Physicians, including myself, believed Purdue and started using Oxycontin, thinking we were helping patients.

At around the same time as Oxycontin’s approval, the American Pain Society, introduced the “pain as the 5th vital sign” campaign, followed soon thereafter by the VA  adopting that campaign as part of their national pain management strategy. This declaration was not accompanied by the release of any device which could objectively measure pain, as was done with all previous vital signs, making it the first and only subjective vital sign.

The Joint Commission joins the list in 2001, issuing standards requiring the use of a pain scale and stressing the safety of opioids. According to the Wall Street Journal, they even published a guide sponsored by Purdue Pharma. This guide reportedly stated, “Some clinicians have inaccurate and exaggerated concerns about addiction, tolerance and risk of death. This attitude prevails despite the fact there is no evidence that addiction is a significant issue when persons are given opioids for pain control.” The Joint Commission framed pain as a patient’s rights issue, inferring that inadequate control of pain would lead to sanctions.


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5 Responses to The Opioid Epidemic: It’s time to place blame where it belongs

  1. PsychRN24

    The opioid epidemic effects everyone. There needs to be education to all medical staff: students, residents, att endings, nurses, and administration. This epidemic has drastically changed our patient population.

  2. jwl

    One of the consequences of this “epidemic” is that patients with legitimate, significant, chronic pain are forced to navigate a difficult system in order to obtain effective pain management. Achieving a diagnosis and a pain management plan requires visits to a primary care physician, referral to a pain management clinic, and various tests, including psychiatric or psychological assessments, imaging studies, and laboratory evaluations. Many pain management physicians and/or clinics focus on interventional management, particularly if the problem originates in the spine. Medical management is considered only if these methods are no longer effective or not effective at all. Then once a medical management regimen is chosen, the specific regimen starts at the lowest dosage and it may take a prolonged time for optimal pain relief to be achieved. Opiod medication can be prescribed for one month at a time, and the patient must be seen at the pain clinic to receive a written prescription, must sign a contract, and urine-testing may be required to rule out use of other drugs. Some practitioners are reluctant to increase the dosage or frequency of the medication despite increasing levels of pain and decreased pain relief achieved. The current system poses a significant barrier to pain patients who would like to travel. I am retired and my husband and I are attempting to travel throughout the USA in an RV. The need to receive the necessary medication to manage my pain has been extremely frustrating and has limited our travel. Healthcare professionals need to remember that not everyone who requests pain medication is an abuser, and there are some patients who must have pain management to be able to function. It would also be wise for the healthcare professionals to keep in mind that pain “management” is not pain “relief”. I have not had a pain-free day in over 10 years; that constant pain and a complicated and punitive system is sometimes too much to bear.

    • Maplessharon

      I totally agree. As a pain patient my goal is my pain controlled at a level I can function. I have not had a pain free day for years. I have had multiple procedures, surgeries and have tried many medications. My pain doctor won’t give me the number of pills I need each month so I must ration them and wait beyond the pain level at which they would be most effective in order to save them. Thus is the life of a chronic pain patient.

  3. leeRN42

    Perfectly said! We hear evidence based practice is best, we hear about validating new processes before deploying, but it is thrown out the window at the highest levels if it will initially safe a buck (even if it will cost over a 100 later). If a pt. or family member indicates dissatisfaction with noise levels at night, the comment is highlight in red and emailed to all staff regardless of the situation (ex. pt. next door coded and 10 staff members were trying to revive the pt – seriously pt. awakened complained). Were we suppose to move the pt. down the hall before starting the code? Pt. dissatisfied because 9 pm meds were given at 10:30 pm, negative comment will likely show up in email in a couple of weeks. With less reimbursements comes less RNs and aids … which means longer waits and more evenings of 1 RN to 5 patients (which EBP has proven can be harmful).

  4. MommaKay3

    Have you ever read a pain management agreement? In plain english it states that you WILL become addicted to these medications. I became disabled a few years ago. Since I had worked hard as a nurse for so many years the shoe was on the other foot for me when I read that statement. I was forth right with my doctor ( not all patients are) I require pain control most days. However there are some days I can manage without. However to adhere to the agreement that I signed on my “good days” I am required to take my opioid medication. Since I am educated I know that using these medications when pain is controlled increases the likelihood of dependency. Using this knowledge I spoke with my doctor, my dose is now ordered PRN. How many patients know this is an option? How many addicts are addicts because their agreement made them addicted?