We like to talk about subjects where the lines get blurry. Who should get care? When is it an illness? Xanax? Seroquel? Which side of the fence and how far over might one lean?
So here's an interesting cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine: When is A Pain Doctor A Drug Pusher?
It's the story of a pain doctor who has been sentenced to 30 years in prison for his sloppy and questionable prescribing practices. The article's author, Tina Rosenberg, comes at it with the tone that it's outrageous that he was sent to jail, deemed a criminal, for his lax practice. Bad doctoring, she contends, is cause for civil malpractice litigation, not criminal prosecution. The docs who prescribe in exchange for sex or drugs, they are the criminals. The doctor in the story did none of those things. She makes the point that the standards for prescribing narcotics, especially to a chronic and drug-tolerant population of pain patients (who may be peppered with occasional abusers) are purposely not stated, and leave the doctor open to both scrutiny and criminal charges.
There are red flags that indicate possible abuse or diversion: patients
who drive long distances to see the doctor, or ask for specific drugs by name,
or claim to need more and more of them. But people with real pain also
occasionally do these things. The doctor’s dilemma is how to stop the diverters
without condemning other patients to suffer unnecessarily, since a drug diverter
and a legitimate patient can look very much alike. The dishonest prescriber and
the honest one can also look alike. Society has a parallel dilemma: how to stop
drug-dealing doctors without discouraging real ones and worsening America’s
undertreatment of pain.
* * *
But such guidelines are futile while there is one pain specialist for,
at the very least, every several thousand chronic-pain sufferers nationwide. And
even though pain is an exciting new specialty, doctors are not flocking to it.
The Federation of State Medical Boards calls “fear among physicians that they
will be investigated, or even arrested, for prescribing controlled substances
for pain” one of the two most important barriers to pain treatment, alongside
lack of understanding. Various surveys of physicians have shown that this fear
is widespread. “The bottom line is, doctors say they don’t need this,” said
Heit. “They’re in a health care system that wants them to see a patient every 10
to 15 minutes. They don’t have time to take a complete history about whether the
patient has been addicted. The fear is very real and palpable that if they
prescribe Schedule II opioids they will come under the scrutiny of the D.E.A.,
and they don’t need this aggravation.”
By the time I finished this article, I was glad I'm not a pain doc. I was even more glad I'm not a pain patient.