Should Dying Cancer Patients Suffer From Under treated Pain Because of ‘Concerns Regarding Addiction’?

Should Dying Cancer Patients Suffer From Under treated Pain Because of ‘Concerns Regarding Addiction’?

Two recent studies show how ham-handed efforts to reduce opioid prescriptions undermine medical care.

Two recent studies show how the attempt to curtail drug abuse by discouraging and restricting opioid prescriptions has hurt bona fide patients by depriving them of the medication they need to ease their pain. The harm inflicted on these innocent bystanders, which would not be morally justified even if the opioid crackdown did what it was supposed to do, is all the more appalling because limiting legal access to these drugs seems to have accelerated the upward trend in opioid-related deaths by driving nonmedical users toward black-market substitutes.

Jon Furuno, an associate professor of pharmacy practice at the Oregon State University College of Pharmacy, looked at prescribing patterns among 2,648 terminal patients who were transferred from an academic medical center to hospice care from January 2010 through December 2018. During that period, regulators and legislators responded to the “opioid crisis” by directly and indirectly limiting analgesic prescriptions, often in ham-handed ways. While that was happening, the study found, the share of hospice-bound patients who had opioid prescriptions when they were discharged fell from 91.2 percent to 79.3 percent—a 13 percent drop.

Furuno and his co-authors, who reported their results this month in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, controlled for age, sex, diagnosis, and the location of hospice care, so changes in those factors do not account for the decline in opioid prescriptions. Furthermore, “prescribing of non-opioid analgesic  medications increased over the same time period,” meaning that pain was more likely to be treated with less effective but still potentially dangerous drugs.

The average age of these patients was 66. Nearly three-fifths had cancer diagnoses, and all of them were expected to die soon, meaning that treatment should have been focused on making them as comfortable as possible in their remaining time.

“Even among patients prescribed opioids during the last 24 hours of their inpatient hospital stay, opioid prescribing upon discharge decreased,” Furuno noted in a press release. “It seems unlikely that patients would merit an opioid prescription on their last day in the hospital but not on their first day in hospice care, and it’s well documented that interruptions in the continuity of pain treatment on transition to hospice are associated with poor patient outcomes.”

Furuno noted that “pain is a common end-of-life symptom, and it’s often debilitating.” He added that more than 60 percent of terminal cancer patients report “very distressing pain.”

In this context, it is especially striking that Furuno and his colleagues cite “patient and caregiver concerns regarding addiction” as one obstacle to adequate pain treatment. The risk of addiction is exaggerated and overemphasized even when physicians are treating chronic pain in patients who may have years or decades to live. When patients on the verge of death are suffering severe pain that could be relieved by opioids, “concerns regarding addiction” seem like a cruel joke.

Furuno et al. also mention “policies and practices aimed at limiting opioid use in response to the opioid epidemic,” which are based on similar fears and reinforce them. In particular, Furuno cites the opioid prescribing guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued in 2016.

3 Responses

  1. Great comment Jen.

  2. It is completely absurd to say they have ‘concerns regarding addiction’ in patients that have days, weeks even months to live. That is a cruel joke. Give me a break. How can they even put that in a file without looking like a complete incompetent buffoon? You literally cannot be an addict if you are dead. Or if it does in fact turn you into an addict at the end of your life, does it matter? Or even if you are an addict that is about to die from cancer and they give you opioid medications to help your pain and it also feeds your addiction, does that matter? My God. Is there no mercy? This makes no sense to me what so ever.

    • “The moral test of a government is how it treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick and the needy, and the handicapped.” – Hubert Humphrey

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