The Opiate Epidemic: A tragedy for patients is a warning to physicians

As student doctors, we are entering the medical field in the middle of a raging wildfire: an “opiate abuse epidemic.”[1] The media would have us believe that addicted patients are perpetuating the problem of opiate misuse and overuse, but opiate misuse and overuse might only be a symptom of a larger problem: a medical culture in which physicians fail to practice good prescribing habits.

Overprescription and subsequent overuse of opiates is undoubtedly further complicated by the ambiguous disease process of chronic pain, a topic which deserves its own time and attention. Questioning provider prescribing practices, however, may be the only path forward in making sure that the tragedy of this crisis does not escalate further. In my mind, there are several features that characterize ideal, quality prescribing habits. First, quality prescribing should place an emphasis on patient education about the drug being proposed. A patient should also be screened for the risk of developing any side effects. Included in this should be a review of any other medication that the patient is currently taking, and potential drug-drug interactions. If necessary, a pharmacist should be involved in this evaluation. Finally, a plan between the physician and the patient to manage care should be established. For medications known to be highly addictive, this might involve a phone call a week later, and a follow up in-office appointment to see how the patient is reacting to the prescribed drug. If at any point these benchmarks for safely prescribing a medication cannot be met, then the treatment choice should be reevaluated.

It was curious timing that in the middle of this epidemic, on May 5, Hawaii House Bill 1072 quietly died in the Hawaii state senate.[2] Bill 1072 “Relating to Prescriptive Authority for Certain Psychologists,” was meant to allow psychologists to have medication prescribing privileges in order to compensate for the Hawaiian physician shortage.[3] At first, I was relieved to read that the bill had not passed the Senate. As a future physician, it’s unsettling to imagine another profession encroaching on the special modalities that we have at our disposal to treat patients, such as our prescribing privileges. But then I had a second thought. If the average physician fails to exercise high-quality prescribing practices, then perhaps clinical psychologists, who by definition study human behavior, might actually make better opiate prescribers than the average physician. In general, psychologists spend time listening and learning about their patients’ history and behavior patterns, offer counseling education, and meet with their patients on a regular basis. This model of health care encompasses many of the aspects needed for ideal prescribing habits, as previously described.

You don’t need a medical degree to understand that opiates are powerful drugs that have many side effects and can lead to addiction.  What we don’t yet seem to understand, as a profession, is how to effectively communicate these risks, or evaluate the best patient candidates for the use of opiates. A 1992 study by Wilson et al. found that when physicians increased the time of their patient interactions by just 1.1 minutes, there was a statistically significant increase in the amount of health education that a doctor could incorporate into a standard visit.[4] While it’s difficult to get specific data about the average length of a typical doctor’s visit[5], a 2013 article from the New York Times suggests that the average new physician spends only eight minutes with each patient.[6] If you have ever participated in a standardized patient encounter as part of your medical school curriculum, you have undoubtedly experienced the struggle to perform a history, physical exam, and basic patient counseling in 14 minutes. When you take into account the level of patient screening and education that the prescription of opiates, or any narcotic, demands, it seems implausible that a doctor can satisfy the requirements necessary to safely discharge a patient with an opiate prescription in such a short span of time.

In response to the opiate crisis, the ultimate long-term goal for the medical community should be to better understand chronic pain, and devise alternative treatment modalities for this diagnosis. In the meantime, however, the medical community should view this unfortunate situation as a call to reevaluate the quality of our prescribing practices. Current and future doctors need to commit ourselves to being worthy of the privilege of the prescription pad, so that it remains a treatment tool and not a source of patient harm.



Featured image:
Medication by Gatis Gribusts

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