NORMAN J CLEMENT RPH., DDS, NORMAN L.CLEMENT PHARM-TECH, MALACHI F. MACKANDAL PHARMD, BELINDA BROWN-PARKER, IN THE SPIRIT OF JOSEPH SOLVO ESQ., IN THE SPIRIT OF REV. C.T. VIVIAN, JELANI ZIMBABWE CLEMENT, BS., MBA., WILLIE GUINYARD BS., JOSEPH WEBSTER MD., MBA, ADRIENNE EDMUNDSON, WALTER L. SMITH BS., LEROY BAYLOR, BS., MS., MS., IN THE SPIRIT OF BRAHM FISHER ESQ., MICHELE ALEXANDER, CUDJOE WILDING BS, MARTIN NDJOU, BS., RPH., DEBRA LYNN SHEPHERD, BERES E. MUSCHETT, STRATEGIC ADVISORS
“This narrative could accelerate flawed policies already gaining traction. More policy decisions like the 2016 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) opioid prescribing guideline, could have a further chilling effect on opioid prescribing — despite the fact that lowering the number of opioid prescriptions does nothing to reduce the number of opioid-related overdose deaths.“
LYNN WEBSTER MD*
About 30 years ago, when I opened a pain clinic, I met a patient who made a lasting impression on me. She was a middle-aged woman who sat on my examining table with hunched shoulders and an unsmiling expression. Dejectedly, she began to tell me about her experiences: living with severe, chronic pain; being passed around by hard-hearted doctors; and being ignored or misunderstood by her family members and friends.
Her words, voice, demeanor saddened me. It wasn’t so much that her pain conditions were unforgiving – they were – but my realization that she was always alone with her pain. She didn’t expect me to believe her, she was just going through the obligatory motions of a life of being unseen and unheard.
I would go on to treat thousands more patients with chronic pain over the next decades, each with unique and complex conditions, but they showed up remarkably and tragically similar to that middle-aged woman. They were as invisible as their pain conditions.
A Narrow Perspective of Opioids
I thought about this particular patient after seeing the HBO documentary “Crime of the Century” and its terribly incomplete perspective of opioids. It occurred to me that the visceral reaction of most viewers would be, “Why are opioids even being used?”
In part, I agreed to be interviewed by Alex Gibney, the director of the documentary, to educate why opioids are still prescribed, despite their risks. After months of exchanging emails and having conversations with a producer, I decided that speaking on the record would be a calculated risk. As a doctor who had prescribed opioids, and who had lost patients because of their pain, I had been confronted by tough interviewers in the past.
The interview reopened a painful episode when a patient under the care of my pain clinic died — despite the treatment we provided, not because of it. The interviewer asked me about my patient’s death. I chose not to address it during the interview out of respect for those involved, and I will refrain from doing so in the future.
A claim that I must address, however, is speaking fees. The documentary says that I was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees which supposedly influenced my prescribing practices. The fact is that I was paid a nominal amount in speaking fees. The purpose of those speaking engagements was to educate clinicians about the safest ways to treat people in pain, not to encourage them to use opioids. At no time ever did I advocate for the use of any branded drug.
Gibney’s comment in an NPR interview that I was “trying to preach the gospel of the opioid” during my career is patently false. If critics can’t distinguish the difference between continuing medical education and being pro-patient (which I devoted my career to) and corporate shilling and being pro-opioid, then that’s their problem. They may want to rethink their profession of telling a story based in truth about a complicated topic.
Narrative over Nuance
Beyond the erroneous claims about me, my fundamental problem with the documentary is its totalizing depiction of an extremely complicated and often confounding societal predicament. According to the documentary, all nuance must comport with the narrative. Deaths due to opioid overdoses – all tragic – are placed under a spotlight, but deaths because of chronic pain, often complicated because of restricted access to opioids, are left alone in the dark.
This narrative could accelerate flawed policies already gaining traction. More policy decisions like the 2016 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) opioid prescribing guideline, could have a further chilling effect on opioid prescribing — despite the fact that lowering the number of opioid prescriptions does nothing to reduce the number of opioid-related overdose deaths.
The documentary appropriately highlights how opioids can, and do, lead to addiction and deaths. But the scientific fact is that not everyone who takes opioids gets addicted or dies; comparatively few do. The benefits of using some opioids outweigh the risks for many people with severe chronic pain. For a certain patient category, opioids can be the difference between life and death, and happiness and misery.
Having studied addiction for my entire career, I am deeply sensitive to the propensity of some people to be harmed by opioids. I also am deeply sensitive to intractable pain for which there are no treatment options today other than the use – as judiciously as possible – of opioids. My experience with patients confirms two things: opioids kill, but so does pain. We cannot continue to treat these outcomes as mutually exclusive.
We must resist the temptation to further restrict or ban opioids for people who desperately need them. Instead, physicians must be allowed to fulfill their professional responsibilities and uphold their oaths, evaluate patients with complicated needs, apply proper discernment, and treat their patients in accordance with the best available scientific evidence.
A CDC disease expert, DEA officer, member of Congress, activist, or documentarian should not ever attempt to practice medicine.
People Suffer Needlessly
Today, one in five American adults suffers from chronic pain, or pain lasting longer than 12 weeks. Chronic pain is a full-blown crisis, not unlike the opioid crisis. Yet we hear precious little about the chronic pain crisis. Most people with pain silently, if unwillingly, endure their conditions. Few of us would listen to them, even if we had the opportunity.
Thirty years ago, I waited until my patient had finished telling me about her experiences. Then I simply said, “I believe you.” Hearing those three words, she burst into tears of relief. Few people had been willing to take her at her word when she told them her life had been derailed by unremitting pain. Hers was among the millions of voices that were, and remain, unheard.
The documentary’s central claim is that marketing opioids is a crime and was understood as such at the time when they began to be used to treat non-cancer pain. The use of opioids in appropriate circumstances for a certain kind of patient was not a crime then, nor is it today. As long as such narratives continue to take root, we shouldn’t be surprised if one “crime” produces another masquerading as a solution.
Lynn R. Webster, MD, consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book The Painful Truth, and co-producer of the documentary It Hurts Until You Die. You can find Lynn on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.
FOR NOW, YOU ARE WITHIN
- *Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist About 30 years ago, when I opened a pain clinic, I met a patient who made a lasting impression on me. She was a middle-aged woman who sat on my examining table with hunched shoulders and an unsmiling expression. Dejectedly, she began to tell me about her experience