By Jen Jenkins
Pain is one of the main reasons people go see their doctor. Although it was once overlooked or often dismissed, it is now a standard vital sign in a patient’s work-up. However, unlike other tests administered in a medical setting, pain is difficult to measure because among other factors, pain tolerance is highly individual. The United States has had a long and complex history with chronic pain management. In the 1990s, doctors were reproached for under-treating pain and were told that opioids, including OxyContin, could not only bring unmitigated relief to patients but do so in a safe way. Today, doctors are again being admonished but for a very different reason. Politicians and policy makers continue to publicly denounce what has been labeled as the “opioid crisis,” due in part to doctors over-prescribing medication, namely opioids.
A growing number of states are enacting measures to limit prescription opioids and the federal government has issued the first national guidelines to help reduce the use of these highly addictive medicines. Dr. Robert L. Wergin, chairman of the board of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said he doesn’t want to stop prescribing opioids altogether but that he can see why some doctors have gotten to that point. Dr. Wergin has taken professional and personal risks in prescribing opioids. Closely monitored by state and federal officials, he must go through an elaborate prescription checklist. He has also been threatened by addicts, desperate for pills. His patients now sign “pain management contracts” and must agree to random drug tests before receiving an opioid prescription. “You don’t want to become so jaded that you assume everyone in the E.R. is a drug-seeker,” Dr. Wergin said, but he has seen firsthand a growing number of overdoses and opioid-related deaths during his emergency room shifts.
Collectively, primary care physicians write the greatest volume of opioid prescriptions and these same doctors are now scrambling to find alternatives for their patients dealing with chronic pain. Prosecutors and medical review boards closely scrutinize physicians who prescribe controlled substances. Many medical associations now offer doctors training about chronic pain, urging the use of other remedies such as physical therapy, acupuncture, anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, or counseling before prescribing opioids. Unfortunately, alternatives are unrealistic for some patients for a variety of reasons: physical therapy may be too expensive; anti-inflammatories cannot be taken by those with a compromised liver.
Some state medical boards have recommended limiting the number of opioid doses per month while others have recommended limiting the strength of daily dose. Dr. Wergin is careful not to promise patients a prognosis of being “pain-free” and chooses instead to talk with them about setting realistic goals to manage their pain. Although opioids help to alleviate severe pain, they are highly addictive. The epidemic of overdoses and death is real and the responsibility of monitoring patients for potential abuse falls largely on prescribing doctors.
Take a moment to read the following New York Times article and learn more about Dr. Wergin and what he is doing for his patients.