Archive for the ‘Doctors Behaving Badly’ Category

Stigma Abounds in Rural North Carolina

 

 

 

 

What Stigma Feels Like

The opioid epidemic has rolled on for more than twenty years now, but misunderstandings and ignorance about best practices regarding treatment of patients still flourishes in medical and dental professionals. Part of my job as an Addiction Medicine treatment professional is the gentle education of other medical providers. Over the past years, I’m more patient than I used to be, knowing that most providers just need information in order to do the best thing for our shared patients. If I’m polite and friendly, our interaction is more likely to go well.

And sometimes, it makes no difference.

This week’s drama unfolded around a patient who was recently diagnosed with cancer. This patient, being treated for opioid use disorder with methadone at 110mg per day, had to see an oral surgeon to have all of her teeth removed before she can undergo cancer chemotherapy. This is because she had extensive decay in all of her teeth which can be sources of infection during chemotherapy.

She saw me a few days after her initial consultation with the oral surgeon to whom her oncologist referred her. She was upset and distressed at what the oral surgeon had said.

She had just found out that all of her teeth, about twenty-one in all, must be removed. And her oral surgeon had told her he wouldn’t be prescribing any pain medication after surgery because she was on methadone.

I listened closely to her and got her permission to call this oral surgeon to talk to him about appropriate pain management for patients with opioid use disorder.

When I called, the surgeon wasn’t there. I was put on hold for four or five minutes, waiting on the surgeon’s assistant. While I was on hold, I listened to their recorded announcements about their practice. The recording told about the educational backgrounds of their two surgeons, then had a pitch about the doctor I wanted to talk with, about how he did missionary work for a certain religion.

Excuse me while I go off on a tangent.

When I heard the bit about missionary work, I felt foreboding. I’ve had past negative experiences with medical professionals who advertise their devotion to a religion as a selling point for themselves or their practices. I notice that sometimes people who profess devotion to a religion seem to be least likely to exhibit the qualities espoused by the leader of their religion: tolerance, patience, love, etc. And I recognize that’s a type of stigma that I hold, which may be unfair to the oral surgeon in question.

I was ruminating on these dark thoughts when the assistant came to the phone. I explained that I was the medical director at the local opioid treatment program, and that the patient being discussed had a diagnosis of opioid use disorder and was being treated with methadone, and that I wanted to discuss the plan for post-operative care with the oral surgeon. The assistant assured me that his doctor’s policy was not to prescribe opioids post-operatively for someone on methadone, because it is a red flag.

“Red flag for what?” I asked.

“That the person is a drug addict & shouldn’t be given any pain medications.”

I took a deep breath and made as effort to keep my tone friendly and cheerful. “Yes, you’re partly correct. As I said, the patient is being treated for opioid use disorder by me. The older term for this medical problem was addiction. She’s being prescribed methadone as treatment for her opioid addiction. It keeps her out of withdrawal and prevents cravings. However, it won’t adequately treat post-surgical pain.”

“In fact, she just had cancer surgery three weeks ago. She was prescribed post-operative oxycodone, 15mg every six hours by the surgeon. We had her mother hold the bottle of opioid pills and dispense as prescribed. This patient did very well and made it through without relapse. We could do something similar after her dental surgery.”

“No,” he said, “We leave it up to the pain clinic to prescribe the pain medication.”

I slapped my forehead and tried to keep an edge out of my voice. “We are not a pain clinic. I don’t prescribe medications for pain. I treat opioid use disorder with methadone and buprenorphine products. I do not prescribe opioids for dental procedures since I’m not an oral surgeon. I don’t know what to expect as far as intensity and duration of pain after extraction of a mouthful of teeth. However, since the surgeon doing the procedure knows how much pain such patients have, he would be the ideal person to prescribe for the post-op pain associated with the procedure that he is doing.”

“Well he’s not going to prescribe anything if the patient is on methadone,” he answered.

“Yes, that’s why I called. I’m trying to educate you about best practices for post-operative care for patients with opioid use disorder who are being prescribed methadone.” I was getting louder and could feel a muscle jumping over my right eye. “What I’m trying to tell you is that this patient’s methadone will not treat post-operative pain. It does keep her out of withdrawal and prevents cravings and helps her function normally, but it won’t treat acute severe pain.”

“Yes but I’m pretty sure the surgeon won’t prescribe anything for pain.”

I thanked him for his time and left my phone number for the surgeon to call me back. This was five days ago and I don’t expect a return call.

This patient is in a bind. She has cancer and can’t start chemotherapy until she heals from getting all her teeth extracted. Time is of the essence. Ordinarily, I’d tell her about the situation and recommend she find another oral surgeon, but she may decide to proceed with this surgeon only to get the whole process moving along.

It’s a real shame that this patient will be forced to suffer pain after her dental extractions. She will get by with Tylenol and ibuprofen, because she will do what she must. I just hate that she’s being treated this way.

Then today. Southern Scripts, an insurance company that one of my long-time patients just switched to, sent my office a prior authorization to fill out before it would OK coverage of buprenorphine/naloxone 8/2mg tabs, 8 mg per day. Among a host of other requirements, they need the patient’s height and weight before they’re willing to authorize payment.

Now that’s a new one. It’s hard for me to imagine what possible height/weight would disqualify a patient for this medication, but what do I know. I’m only the doctor.

Also today, I heard about an exchange one of my patients had with a Walgreens pharmacist. She wanted to fill her Suboxone 8mg film prescription two days early. I had already called ahead and left a message with the pharmacist that it was OK with me, since she had recently tapered from 16mg down to 12mg. She had more problems with that drop than we expected, and so she ran out 2 days early. Since the decrease in dose had been requested by the patient in the first place, and since I didn’t want her to be without medication for two days, I gave permission to fill it early. I did not think this was a big deal.

The patient said that she was third in line at the pharmacy, with six or eight people standing in the area waiting for service, when the pharmacist called out to her, asking why she ran out early. My patient didn’t want to compromise her privacy, so she shook her head, declining to answer. She says the pharmacist began to harangue her in front of all the other people, saying since she wouldn’t tell her why she needed to fill the medication early, she wasn’t going to get it from “her” pharmacy.

The patient left, tearful and humiliated, but not before she demanded the written prescription back from this hateful pharmacist. She took it to another Walgreens in her area and filled it with no problem.

I’m no longer shocked or surprised at the hassles my patients endure. But we are now several decades into this opioid epidemic. I think it’s time we insist on better education and treatment from medical, dental, and paramedical professionals. I’ve been patient and tried hard to approach outdated attitudes as an educational challenge.

Now I occasionally wonder if things will ever change. I find myself having the same conversations with other medical providers that I had fifteen years ago. Are we making any progress against the stigma our patients face? Only time will tell.

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Where Did All the Pills Go?

On the left, number of pills per capita by county
On the right, opioid overdose death rates by county

 

The Washington Post has written some amazing stories this month about our present opioid epidemic. One of their articles described how they accessed data about the distribution of all the prescription opioid pills manufactured and consumed in the U.S. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/dea-pain-pill-database/?utm_term=.f9fb5fdb26b7

This data is amazing. There’s a box where you can enter your state or county and learn how many pain pills were sold, how many that averages per person, and which pharmacy sold the most.

For my state of North Carolina, around 2.5 billion pills were sold from 2006 until 2012. Most of these pills were distributed by Cardinal Health. Omnicare Pharmacy of Hickory, NC sold the most pills of any pharmacy, at over 9 million pills.

In my county, 26 million pills were prescribed from 2006 until 2012, enough for 55 pills per person. SpecGx pharmaceutical company manufactured the most pills sold in our county. (They make Roxicodone, called “roxies” by the patients I admit to treatment.)

The data, while interesting, needs to be interpreted with caution. For example, we could jump to the conclusion that Omnicare Pharmacy of Hickory, NC, which sold more pain pills than any other pharmacy in NC, is doing something wrong or inappropriate. But this pharmacy doesn’t sell directly to the public. It supplies opioid pain medications to assisted and skilled nursing facilities. This means the pharmacy may supply pain pill to facilities where patients stay to recuperate after orthopedic surgeries, for example. For such patients, opioid pain pills may be not only appropriate but necessary. The data is also seven years old, but that’s the way data is obtained; it takes time to collect and process information.

But the data gives overall trends and shows the staggering numbers of opioid pain pills consumed by residents of certain areas.

The Washington Post website also published two maps: one shows the number of opioid pills sold, and the other shows opioid deaths by county. The overlap, though not absolute, is striking.

The Washington Post’s recent articles contain valuable information for us, if we chose to learn from them and act on them. To me, they have given us maps of where to concentrate opioid use disorder treatment programs. Unfortunately, some of the most severely affected counties are rural, with few providers who know how to treat opioid use disorder. We’ve got to continue to focus resources on these areas.

The Washington Post also published an article about which pharmaceutical companies made the most opioid pills, which corporations distributed the most prescription opioid pills, and which pharmacy chains sold the most pills. Right now, lawsuits are proceeding against all these participants in the opioid epidemic.

The biggest manufacturers include Janssen Pharmaceutical, Purdue Pharma, Endo Health Solutions, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Allergan, and Mallinckrodt. Some of the biggest distributors were AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson Corp. The biggest pharmacy chains are CVS, Rite Aid Corp., Walgreen’s, and Walmart Inc.

The lawsuits against these companies allege that they should have notified the DEA of suspicious orders for large amounts of opioids, and that they violated the Controlled Substances Act by failing to report. Some lawsuits against pharmacies allege the pharmacies had to know that medications were being diverted to the street.

Other than that, I’m not sure I understand the basis of these lawsuits.

For sure, if a company mislead physicians in its marketing, as many people feel that Purdue Pharma did, I understand that as a crime.

But I don’t know enough about what manufacturers and distributors and pharmacies are supposed to do when supplying opioids. This must be driven by physicians’ prescriptions, I would think. I doubt drug companies would manufacture opioids unless there was a demand, or that distributors would distribute and pharmacies would sell, unless there are legitimate physicians’ prescriptions.

I don’t understand how we can expect manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies to know more about good prescribing than physicians should. And physicians surely did underestimate the dangers of these medications, thanks in part to the so-called experts, who downplayed the risks of long-term opioid prescribing for chronic pain. Also, the “under-treatment of pain” movement accused doctors of being callous to suffering and encouraged them to view pain as the “fifth vital sign.”

At any rate, Washington Posts’ series of articles bring some facets of the opioid epidemic to light.

 

 

 

Physician Burnout

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On my last post about the Tenth Annual NC Addiction Medicine Conference, I lacked room to write about an outstanding presentation by Clark Gaither, MD., about physician burnout. It was probably the best presentation I’ve heard on the topic.

Providers, meaning not only physicians but also physician assistants and nurse practitioners, are being asked to do more and more in less and less time. Some providers feel like we are working a production line, as if we’re stamping out widgets. There’s not enough time to do what we have been trained to do. This leads to feelings of frustration and burnout.

At his presentation, Dr. Gaither quoted a phrase that resonated with me. It describes the frustrations of being asked to do more and more busy work that takes time away from the real practice of medicine: “A thousand betrayals of purpose.”

Isn’t that a great phrase?

Thankfully, besides giving presentations, Dr. Gaither also works to prevent physician burnout. Besides being the Medical Director of our state’s Physicians Health Program, he still finds time to work with companies and individuals to address burnout, and also has a blog with good information. Here’s his web address: http://www.clarkgaither.com/

I’ve dealt with burnout, too. I’ve written about it on my blog, and even got honorable mention in a physicians’ writing contest for an essay I wrote. The actual topic was about work/life balance, which can be an aspect of burnout. Here’s what I had to say on the topic:

“Every Sunday evening, a blanket of gloom shrouded me as I contemplated my upcoming work week. I felt trapped by my work contract, my financial obligations, and my family’s expectations. I couldn’t envision how I could change my life.

In reality, I was the only person who could make changes.

My inability to enjoy work baffled me. I’d finally achieved what I worked for through college, medical school, and residency. I was a board-certified physician of Internal Medicine, well-trained, and prepared to care for patients in a rural practice setting.

This was in the early 1990’s, and in my area, hospitalists didn’t exist. I saw patients in the office by day, at the hospital by night, and squeezed in a dozen or so nursing home patients during free time. I worked around seventy hours per week as I raced down the road to burnout.

During those years, I was a thirsty person trying to drink from a fire hose. It was good stuff, but too much for me.

Then I developed a medical issue, which in retrospect could have been avoided or mitigated by a less stressful work situation. I took a few years off work to regain my health. What at first felt like a personal health disaster eventually became my opportunity to re-organize my life into a full and happy existence, with time to enjoy everything I love. This included taking care of sick patients.

During my two-year hiatus, I missed being a physician. Though I now had an identity outside of medicine, I missed patient interactions and the intellectual challenges. I wanted to return to work, but in new circumstances.

Initially, I thought the solution was to work part-time. That helped, but though I was well-rested, I was dissatisfied with primary care practice. That’s not where my heart was.

I networked with other physician friends, scoured the internet for different practice settings, and became involved with a physician support group near me. I kept an open mind and considered areas outside of mainstream medicine: occupational medicine, working for insurance companies and drug companies, and doing locum tenens work. I considered new areas like forensic medicine and considered going back to complete a different residency. I made thoughtful decisions based on my research.

Eventually I found my niche in Addiction Medicine, after I agreed to work for a physician friend who was the medical director of an addiction medicine facility. I got additional training and eventually became certified in Addiction Medicine, now a recognized medical specialty by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Now, I look forward to my work days. I constantly face new challenges, I get paid reasonably well, and I feel like I’m helping not only my patients, but also their families and the community. I feel like I do more good in one day than I did in a month at my Internal Medicine practice, where I treated the sequellae of addiction, but never the cause.

I love the company I work for, and they respect my judgment and support my medical decisions. I work as much as I want for this company and have time for my own small office-based buprenorphine practice.

I feel blessed to have found my niche, but I also had to do some foot work to get to this point. Here are my suggestions for physicians who want to make changes in their work environments:

  1. Decide what parts of your work makes you happy, and what parts are not so enjoyable. Use your imagination and try to picture what your perfect job would look like. You may not recognize your perfect work opportunity unless you have an idea of what it looks like.
  2. Keep an open mind and investigate niches of medicine you haven’t considered. Consider working for a locum tenens company as a way to get paid while you investigate different aspects of medicine.
  3. Adjust your financial priorities. If you want to work fewer hours, you may need to jettison some life luxuries. You can make trade -offs. If you want a vacation home on the beach and a big boat, you may need to work more hours than a physician who is content with a cabin in the woods.
  4. Don’t get discouraged by false starts. More than one practice setting failed to work out for me in the long term. I considered that all part of the learning process.
  5. Remember the lessons you learn and try not to repeat mistakes. Several years after I found an enjoyable work situation, leadership changed. I was told that I needed to see more patients, and that my usual pace of six patients per hour was too slow.I recognized this practice was no longer a good fit for me. By this time, I knew my limits, and knew I wouldn’t be happy trying to meet new expectations. I told my physician employer that I planned to move on, and that he should start looking for my replacement. I told him that I didn’t have the temperament for what he needed in a physician and wished him well. We parted on amicable terms, and I found a place that fit me much better only a few months later.
  6. Expect to feel some fear. Life changes are risky, but we are talking about reasonable, calculated risks. Decide how much risk you can tolerate and proceed accordingly. For example, if financial insecurity would ruin your peace of mind, don’t quit your present job until you find a new one.
  7. Don’t allow your identity to be completely defined as a physician. As good as it can feel to be a physician, remember it’s only a portion of who we are. It’s also essential to cultivate our identities as parents, husbands, wives, and the dozens of other things important to us. That way, we aren’t as dependent on work for our sense of well-being. Particularly in this uncertain age of medicine, we must be grounded in other areas of our lives.

Physicians have more control over our lifestyles than we believe. We may feel stuck, trapped in situations we don’t like, but in truth, most of us have the financial and emotional resources to change our lives into something better. We have survived rigorous training and have skills to continue to change.

Trying something new is uncomfortable and scary, and sometimes doesn’t work out. But if you feel like I felt – that cold blanket of dismay over your shoulders every Sunday evening –doing nothing, staying stuck – that’s the much bigger risk.”

It was on my 40th birthday when my physician boss told me I had to see more patients per hour to keep my job. It didn’t feel like a very good birthday, but that was the day that I decided to look for another area of medicine, so it turned out to be a wonderful gift.

Later that same year, I accidentally worked for a week at an opioid treatment program (long story). I became fascinated with treating opioid use disorder with methadone. I couldn’t believe I’d never been taught about the tons of evidence supporting this treatment, either in medical school or residency. I could see it helped patients so much, but there was so much stigma.

Data 2000 had been passed just the year before, and around 2002 I got my waiver to prescribe buprenorphine from an office-based setting. I didn’t start prescribing buprenorphine until 2006, because I was worried an office-based practice wouldn’t give me enough support. I’d become accustomed to the team-based system of OTPs. But when I did start prescribing, I loved it.

Finding an area of medicine where I could make a difference doused the fire of my burnout.

Not every day is filled with rainbows and roses, but for the most part I enjoy my day, my work, my patients, and my coworkers. I know that I am blessed.

This Should Never Happen

 

I had a frustrating admission to the opioid treatment program last week. The patient wasn’t frustrating; she was delightful. Her experience with the healthcare system was frustrating and disappointing.

This nice lady (details have been changed to protect her privacy) has been going to a local pain management group for several years, with some success. About five months ago, she expressed a desire to taper off her prescribed opioids because she didn’t like worrying about running out of medication. She thought if she worried about withdrawal, it was a sign of opioid use disorder (which she called addiction).

The pain clinic provider listened to her concerns, then switched her to Suboxone in divided doses. It’s not clear if the provider thought the patient had evidence of opioid use disorder, or if he thought switching the patient to suboxone would help manage symptoms of pain, or if he was trying to keep the patient happy.

At any rate, the patient felt well on a relatively low, divided dose of Suboxone. She was able to go about her daily business with relatively less pain for some months.

Then she unexpectedly became pregnant.

That’s when the problems began. The patient says her prescriber got excited about her treatment, and what should be done during her pregnancy. This doctor told her the suboxone could damage her pregnancy and he couldn’t prescribe for her any more. She was also told it was very dangerous to come off Suboxone while pregnant.

As an aside, I need to inform readers that in the past, only the monoproduct buprenorphine was approved for pregnancy. Researchers and physicians worried the combination product, with both buprenorphine and naloxone, could cause withdrawal and side effects. Now, I have information from experts that the combo product is just as safe as the monoproduct. Professionals at the University of North Carolina’s Horizons Program, which treats pregnant women with opioid use disorder, say that the combination product, buprenorphine with naloxone added, can be safely used. This program, which was part of the landmark MOTHER trial back in 2010, has done renowned work for years.

Anyway, after hearing conflicting information from her pain management physician, the patient didn’t know what to do. She was terminated as a patient at this pain medicine practice because she became pregnant, but also told that if she stopped taking Suboxone, it could kill her unborn child. The pain clinic referred her to office-based prescribers of buprenorphine products in a nearby city.

When she called these practices, she was asked questions over the phone about her opioid use disorder. The patient answered honestly, but she was turned down for treatment since she didn’t meet criteria for opioid use disorder.

Not one of her providers or potential providers mentioned going for evaluation at an opioid treatment program. Her obstetrician didn’t give specific instructions for her, instead telling her to taper off her Suboxone if she could.

Thankfully the patient had a friend who knew about our opioid treatment program. This friend thought we could either help this patient or tell her where to go for help.

A day or two after the patient called our opioid treatment program, I did an admission history and physical exam for her. This means I listened to her complete history of opioid use, asked questions for clarification, and did a limited physical exam. When we finished, I told her I didn’t think she met criteria to be diagnosed with opioid use disorder,

How did I come to this conclusion? I asked a series of questions to determine if she met the criteria for opioid use disorder. She had tolerance to and withdrawal from prescribed opioids, but that’s not enough to meet diagnostic criteria. She hadn’t misused her medication by snorting or injecting and hadn’t taken more than prescribed. She didn’t use extra opioids from friends or family and didn’t ever run out early on her medications. She didn’t overuse her medication to the point of intoxication and didn’t use her medications to treat emotional states. She didn’t use alcohol to intensify effects. In short, she wasn’t my average patient.

But what was she supposed to do? Abandoned by her pain management physician, she was in a pickle. Clearly, continued treatment with buprenorphine, either mono or combo product, was the best thing for this patient and her fetus. Since she didn’t seem to have any alternatives, I admitted her to our opioid treatment program. It was the right thing to do.

I took her dose back to the 8mg per day that she’d been on, and I saw her again this past week. She felt fine, with no withdrawal, and we talked more about what to expect while on buprenorphine during pregnancy. I think she will do very well.

After she delivers, she can seek treatment at a pain clinic if that’s what she desires. Right now, she plans to taper off buprenorphine after delivery. That may work well, though tapering with a new baby at home sounds daunting to me. We will help her with whatever she desires.

We aren’t a pain clinic, and the once daily observed dosing isn’t necessary for this patient who has not developed opioid use disorder. It’s a much more intense level of care than she really needs. But we were willing to help her until she can find a better solution, for her well-being and the well-being of her baby.

She was thankful to have a solution and some answers but puzzled as to why other providers didn’t want to help her.

Pregnant ladies taking opioids, with or without opioid use disorder, are hot potatoes, at least in my region. No one wants to take care of them, so they get tossed to one provider after another. This patient’s experience is common.

You would think, now a few decades into this opioid use disorder epidemic, that we would have evidence-based guides to the treatment of these patients. We do, but providers are still reluctant.

Doctors get nervous about pregnant women taking drugs, licit or illicit. They fear extra liability comes with the extra person, the fetus. For many physicians, pregnant ladies are someone else’s problem, preferably their obstetricians’.

But obstetricians in this area, with rare exceptions, don’t want to take care of the substance use disorders. Some providers still think people who develop substance use disorders are bad people, or have bad morals, or are weak-willed. They prefer their patients take their drug use somewhere else for treatment.

How could this have been handled better?

I think the pain clinic should have continued to treat this lady with no interruptions in her care. They should have communicated with her obstetrician and coordinated care with the obstetrician. They should have been given the information that it’s now acceptable to continue the patient on Suboxone, and that pregnant patients don’t necessarily need to switch to the buprenorphine monoproduct, although that would have worked fine, too.

If the pain clinic physicians couldn’t manage this patient, they should not have dropped her until/unless they found her a new provider, instead of giving the patients a few phone numbers to call to seek help on her own. It felt to the patient like they were punishing her for becoming pregnant.

This opioid use disorder epidemic started about two decades ago. How long is it going to take for medical providers to learn how to manage or refer patients with opioid use disorder for proper care?

It’s kind of like flying a plane…if you don’t know how to land, maybe you shouldn’t take off in the first place.

Criminally Pregnant, Again: Tennessee’s Fetal Assault Law Won’t Die

 

 

Tennessee lawmakers are trying to revive a version of the Fetal Assault Law, originally passed in 2014 but allowed to sunset in 2016, after the state saw worsening outcomes for pregnant moms and babies. [1, 2]

I wrote two blog entries when this law was first passed – you can read “Criminally Pregnant in Tennessee” Parts 1 and 2 from April 12, 2014 and April 26, 2014. The second blog entry was supposed to be satirical. (I won’t try that again, after two out of six commenters thought I was being serious about putting the “addicted babies” in jail.)

This is the proposed law, in part: Notwithstanding subdivision (c)(1), nothing in this section shall preclude prosecution of a woman for assault under §39-13-101 based on the woman’s illegal use of a narcotic drug, as defined in Section 39-17-402, while pregnant, if the woman’s child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug and the addiction or harm is a result of the woman’s illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant,”

To summarize, the Fetal Assault Law says that a pregnant woman can be criminally charged if her baby is born addicted to or harmed by an illegal drug used by the woman.

The wording of the bill is scientifically wrong, of course. Babies can’t be born addicted, since addiction is diagnosed only in the presence of obsession and compulsion to use the drug despite adverse consequences. Babies don’t have obsessions or compulsions, and even if they did, we wouldn’t know it. But I know what lawmakers meant. The lawmakers likely meant to say, “physically dependent,” but lack knowledge about substance use disorder science to know the proper terms.

These types of laws are nothing new. We know the problems that occur with these laws, and Tennessee should learn from examples from the past – their own recent past.

Amnesty International released a 69-page report in 2017, titled “Criminalizing Pregnancy: Policing Pregnant Women Who Use Drugs in the U.S.” This report summarizes research about laws that criminalize behaviors during pregnancy and give some overall data, but the report focused on two states: Tennessee and Alabama.

https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/amr51/6203/2017/en/

It’s an interesting report, and worth a read. I wish Tennessee lawmakers would read it, because they would have more information about what happened during the two years the Fetal Assault Law was enacted in the years 2014 – 2016.

According to the Amnesty International report, here are the biggest problems seen under the law:

Deterrence of prenatal care: Predictably, pregnant women are less likely to seek prenatal care if they are using drugs and fear being arrested. Even the women who did seek prenatal care were sometimes drug tested without their consent and even without their knowledge.

Uneven application of the law: Some areas of Tennessee had far more cases charged than others, because of the decisions of the local prosecutors. A total of around one hundred women were charged under the Fetal Assault Law, mostly in the eastern part of the state, where there are few treatment facilities available for pregnant women, and in Memphis, in the far western part of the state.

Also, nearly all the women charged in Tennessee were either poor, minorities, or both. The county with the highest number of women charged under the Fetal Assault Law (Shelby County, where Memphis is located), was also ironically a county with lower rates of drug-exposed newborns than other parts of the state. However, that county’s residents are predominantly African-American. It looks as if the prosecutor in that county was more zealous about charging women under the Fetal Assault Law.

Adding to the problem, drug testing policy during pregnancy isn’t uniform. Poor and minority women are more likely to be drug tested, with one study showing that black women were 1.5 times more likely to be tested than non-black women, despite drug use rates that are approximately equal between races. Black women testing positive were ten times more likely to be reported to authorities than non-black women. (Kinins et al., 2007, Chasnoff et al., 1990)

Lack of availability of treatment: Ironically, more women were charged under the Fetal Assault Law in areas with fewer available treatment options. Even when pregnant women with substance use disorders desired treatment, there were few options. Only 19 of Tennessee’s 177 treatment centers open during 2014-2016 treated pregnant women. At the time this law was active, there were no opioid treatment programs in Eastern Tennessee. Even in parts of the state that had opioid treatment programs, the state-funded TennCare program doesn’t pay for methadone treatment during pregnancy, which is the standard of care as noted by experts in the Addiction Medicine field.

The Amnesty International report tells of one woman in Tennessee who tried for three months to access treatment but was turned down repeatedly. She was charged under the Fetal Assault Law.

According to calculations, even if all available treatment beds were set aside for pregnant women with substance use disorders, those resources wouldn’t cover even half of the existing need.

I hope Tennessee doesn’t go backward and re-enact this Fetal Assault law. Since substance use disorders are illnesses, it makes more sense for these women to get treatment, not jail time.

After all, that’s how we treat alcohol abuse and cigarette smoking during pregnancy. We have far more data about harm done to the fetus from maternal smoking and drinking alcohol. But because these substances are legal, they are dealt with as a public health issue. Obesity also affects the outcome of pregnancies. In one article, the dangers of maternal obesity were outlined, and the authors concluded, “Even modest increases in maternal BMI were associated with increased risk of fetal death, stillbirth, and neonatal, perinatal, and infant death.” [3]

I doubt lawmakers would be comfortable setting laws around how much weight a pregnant woman can gain. But if their main concern is fetal well-being, and if they think criminalizing behavior is a way to fix problems, who knows? Maybe next year Tennessee will be patrolling obstetricians’ office for obese pregnant ladies.

  1. http://www.wmcactionnews5.com/2019/02/12/tennessee-bill-revive-fetal-assault-law-would-prosecute-women-who-use-drugs-during-pregnancy/
  2. https://www.npr.org/2016/03/23/471622159/tennessee-lawmakers-discontinue-controversial-fetal-assault-law
  3. Aune, et al, “Maternal Body Mass Index and the Risk of Fetal Death, Stillbirth, and Infant Death: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” JAMA, 2014; 311(15):1536-1546.

Advice for New Prescribers

 

 

 

The medical care providers of this nation are being encouraged get training necessary to prescribe buprenorphine products (brand names Suboxone, Zubsolv, Bunavail, Sublocade, and the generics) for the treatment of opioid use disorder in their patients. We need more good prescribers, because even after twenty years into this opioid situation, only about twenty percent of patients who need treatment can get it.

I’ve written on this topic a few times in the past, but this blog entry will contain some advice directed to new prescribers of buprenorphine products. Hopefully it will help them have good experiences prescribing medication-assisted treatment.

Here are some ideas that work for me at my office:

Treat the patient with opioid use disorder with the same attitude and compassion that you would for any other patient with a potentially fatal chronic illness. If you can’t do that, then don’t treat patients with substance use disorders. Patients detect negative attitudes such as distain and dislike even when those attitudes are communicated non-verbally. For whatever reason, if you can’t put judgment aside, then work on your own issues before you attempt to treat suffering people trying to get well.

Patients will resent a physician with a bad attitude. That will contaminate the relationship with predictable results.

For example, I talked to one physician who had his waiver to prescribe buprenorphine from an office setting. I asked him why he wasn’t using his waiver to treat patients, since there were so many in our community that needed help.

He told me the visits with the first two patients went poorly. He said both these patients threatened his life and the lives of his family members. After that, he decided not to risk treating anyone with opioid use disorder.

I was shocked. I’ve never, in the thirteen years I’ve been prescribing from an office practice, had any patient threaten my life, though I’ve made some angry at me. I had to wonder what kind of bedside manner this doctor had, for his first two patients to want to kill him. That sounds like I’m blaming the doctor, and maybe I am, but his experience was so contrary to my own that I had to wonder what was going on. I suspect his patients didn’t feel respected by him.

I’ve had one patient threaten me with bodily harm, but that was at an opioid treatment program in Gastonia, NC, more than a decade ago. The patient was an avowed KKK member, tall and large, with tattoos of hate groups on his muscular arms. I might have been worried, except at the time he threatened me, he was so impaired on benzos that I could have pushed him over with a finger. I’d just told him he couldn’t dose with methadone that day, due to impairment. The next week, he greeted when we passed in the hall. I assume he had been in a blackout from his benzodiazepine ingestion the week before and didn’t remember our previous interaction.

Be clear with your patients about your expectations. At the first visit, I sit with the patient and go over a patient agreement form. I adapted it from a SAMHSA website where you can find helpful forms, tools, and ideas.

https://pcssnow.org/resources/clinical-tools/

https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/training-resources/publications

In that agreement, I outline my expectations. I have paragraphs indicating that disruptive or violent behavior won’t be tolerated and are grounds for immediate dismissal from my practice. In thirteen years, I’ve never had one patient become rowdy or disruptive. Having said that, I do realize other prescribers have had different experiences.

I ask patients to keep and be on time for appointments, and if they don’t show up and don’t call, they will be charged for the missed visit. I tell patients I won’t call in prescriptions if they miss a visit. Having said that, I’m also flexible enough to know that things do come up – cars break down, traffic jams occur, etc. In the winter, travel can be treacherous, so that’s another factor to be dealt with. All I ask is that the patients communicate problems early so we can find a reasonable solution.

Patients who miss appointments, don’t call, and won’t answer our calls to find out what’s going on will have problems at my practice. It may or may not be their fault, but if it doesn’t work out they will need to find a new provider.

My agreement also says I won’t “fire” a patient before I talk to them face-to-face. Patients tell me they’ve been dismissed by a practice by letter, for some issue or another. I think that’s cowardly, and disrespectful to the patient. If there’s a reason I feel I can no longer to continue treatment as we are, I owe it to the patient to tell them exactly what the problem is. Sometimes we can find solutions short of termination and sometimes we can’t. At least the patient will know I respect them enough to talk to them, and they will know the basis of my decision. They will also get a referral to a new provider, or at least a recommendation.

Be careful with patient selection and try to match the patient with the best level of care.

Not every patient will do well in an office-based setting. For example, if a patient has been using buprenorphine products illicitly by insufflation or injection, that patient probably is best treated in an opioid treatment program, where observed dosing is done.

Most patients need to be on the combination products buprenorphine/naloxone. Adverse reactions do occur with the monoproduct, but they are rare, and drug diversion is not. If a new patient needs the monoproduct, I refer them to an opioid treatment program where they can be properly observed.

If that patient has been treated in another office-based setting with medical records that support their progress and compliance on the monoproduct, my recommendation would be different. Many factors influence my treatment decisions, so I need all the information I can get to make the best decisions.

This leads me to my next recommendation: get old records. Make the effort to get records from a previous practice. Sometimes patients, to curry favor with a new prescriber, will tell tales about how awful their last prescriber was. That may be true…or there may be more to the story, so get records to get a better idea of what happened at the last practice.

Don’t falsify your own records. It’s unethical and probably illegal to bill for services you document but don’t provide. To get higher insurance reimbursements, physicians sometimes chart long review of systems and/or physical exams than were performed. This is called “up-billing.” I suspect up-billing when I see records with four pages of single-spaced type for each visit, but then notice the same four pages for each monthly visit, with no changes.

I blogged before about a patient whose records recorded an exam saying “consistent with eight-month pregnancy” for every monthly visit for over a year. Yeah…kind of suspicious…using that cut-and-paste feature, I think.

If you do telemedicine, make sure you have some sort of medical personnel on site with the patient to look for physical finding you may miss with telecommunications. I just admitted a patient to our opioid treatment program who had been on Suboxone for six months from a provider he only saw online. This patient was injecting his medication, but his prescriber couldn’t see it. His most prominent tracks were on the side of his neck, which could be hidden with a high collar. Obviously, this could have ended in disaster had the patient not realized he needed a higher level of care.

Be careful about lab schemes. If a laboratory diagnostic service is charging patients $500 for one drug screen, it’s probably a scam. In past years, these organization popped up like mushrooms in manure, saying they could do extensive lab testing for all patients, but only charge those with insurance. Uninsured would get free testing.

As it turns out, some of those companies charged outrageous fees to the insurance companies, including Medicaid and Medicare, for expensive and unnecessary testing, in get-rich-quick schemes. Here’s a link to an article that explains how this works:

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/report-urine-based-drug-tests-helping-some-doctors-soak-profits

Good providers don’t want to sully their name by associating with shady laboratory service providers. Physicians can do good point-of-care testing on site for $10 or less. Sometimes patients need more extensive testing, and this can be decided on a case-by-case basis rather than testing every patient for dozens of drugs that aren’t commonly used in the community where you practice.

Be aware of what drugs are trending in your area and make sure they are included in your drug testing protocol. In the past, heroin was rare in rural areas, but that’s changed. As I’ve discussed on this blog, heroin frequently contains fentanyl, a much more powerful opioid that’s responsible for many overdose deaths.

Ask your new patients what drugs are being used in your community. They can be great sources of information, as can local addiction medicine educational conferences, and your local law enforcement officials.

Make friends with the medical director at your local opioid treatment program. Most physician medical directors at opioid treatment programs are happy to work collaboratively with office-based providers. We share patients all the time and need to do what’s best for the patient. We don’t need to look at each other as competitors, because there are more than enough patients for everyone, unfortunately. Let’s work together to get people into treatment, and to match the patient with the right level of care.

It can be a relief for an office-based provider to know they have a facility willing to deliver a higher level of care when necessary. Sometimes the patient may need inpatient treatment, but at other times it might be an opioid treatment program, where the patient may come daily for dosing and oversight.

Again, some patients, in an effort to curry favor with a new prescriber, may talk disparagingly about another treatment facility, so don’t take a patient’s word that an opioid treatment program does an awful job.

Decades ago in my previous life as a primary care physician, I learned that the new patient who tells me how wonderful I am compared to their last terrible doctor will soon be saying the same thing to another new doctor, about how terrible I am. I know there are terrible doctors, but there are also some patients that can’t be pleased no matter how good the physician.

Finally, get involved with organizations that can help you. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel; as I mentioned above, help is available from several sources.

Go to the SAMHSA website mentioned above and you will find helpful resources. Or you can go to the American Society of Addiction Medicine website for information: https://www.asam.org/  You may decide to go to one of their excellent conferences.

Go to the Providers’ Clinical Support System (PCSS) website and search their educational offerings at https://pcssnow.org/ They have archived webinars, mentoring programs, and other great things available.

If you work in North Carolina, there is the UNC ECHO program, which offers live teleconferences three days per week on issues surrounding medication-assisted treatment of patients in the office setting. You can hear cases presented and listen to input from experts and other prescribers, while getting free (yes I said free) CME hours. Once involved, you can present your own difficult cases to get help with difficult patient situations. You can go to their website at: https://echo.unc.edu/ or leave me a comment with your email and I can connect you to the organization.

It can be difficult to persuade new prescribers that treating patients with opioid use disorder is rewarding and fun. I became a physician because I wanted to help people, sappy as that sounds. I didn’t feel the sense of satisfaction during the decade I worked in primary care, for whatever reason, that I now feel working in the field of Addiction Medicine.

Patients with Substance Use Histories Denied Primary Care

Shocked and Appalled

 

 

 

 

 

One of my long-time and very stable patients saw me a few weeks ago for her yearly history and physical. That’s a minimum requirement for the patients I treat with methadone or buprenorphine at the opioid treatment program. For patients in treatment for many months, I no longer need to see them frequently for positive drug screens, dose adjustments, and other things, so we make sure to set aside time each year for me to catch up on how they are doing.

This isn’t only good medical care, but it’s fun for me. I love talking to patients and hearing the ways in which their lives have improved. It’s fun for them to discuss how they are accomplishing their life goals.

This day, after asking about the adequacy of her dose, her mood, her sleeping habits and biggest sources of stress, I asked about her overall health. To start with, I asked the name of her primary care physician. She told me she couldn’t get one, because of her history of opioid use.

I asked for further details: she called a local practice about becoming established as a patient, and part of their screening was to ask if she’d ever been prescribed opioids. She said yes, but that problem was in the past, and she didn’t need opioids now. She was then told that the practice wasn’t accepting any patients with a history of opioid use.

Merely opioid use, mind you – not opioid use disorder.

This wasn’t because of her insurance status, as she is covered by the largest private insurance carrier in the state, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of NC.

She said her feelings were hurt, and she started crying as soon as she got off the phone. She said, “They made me feel like a piece of shit.” She even teared up in my office as we were talking two weeks later.

This does not sit right with me.

I gave her the website of the North Carolina Medical Board and gave her the web address and phone number of where and how to file a complaint against that practice. I told her that denying entry to primary care for a patient because of past opioid use was immoral, if not illegal. I’m not a lawyer, but I figured if she let the medical board know, they could figure this out.

She hadn’t even told them she was on methadone. I know it’s a violation of the American with Disabilities Act, the ADA, to discriminate against someone with opioid use disorder who is in recovery on medication-assisted therapy. But I didn’t think that was the case for her, since she didn’t have time to tell them she was on methadone. By her description, their decision was based only on her history of receiving opioid prescriptions in the past.

I doubt there was any misunderstanding on her part, since she’s not the first patient we’ve had who reported similar situations. Also, local practices tell our patients on methadone or buprenorphine that they don’t have the “expertise” to care for them if they are taking methadone or buprenorphine from me.

This is ridiculous, since primary care physicians care for patients with specialty medications all the time. Cardiac patients on complicated heart medications still get primary care. HIV patients on powerful anti-viral medications still get primary care. Patients with opioid use disorder are no different.

But to be denied primary care merely because opioids have been prescribed in the past…it’s a step beyond the usual discrimination I see.

Of course, if the medical board does investigate, I expect that practice will blame the patient for misunderstanding, and say they accept all patients. Maybe…but at least they will be on notice that discriminatory practices can and will get them into problems. Hopefully they will be less likely to do this again.

No wonder local death rates increased. Not only are we dealing with the continued opioid use disorder epidemic with its opioid overdose death risk, but also with a lack of medical care for those people who survive opioid use disorder. It’s a double assault on patient health.

I live in a beautiful part on this country, but the medical care in this community often baffles me.

After a free-for-all on prescribing opioids, benzos and stimulants for a decade or two, the patients in this area for whom those were prescribed now can’t even get a primary care practitioner. It’s as if local doctors think that after the pendulum swung so far in one direction, it must swing too far in the other.

Common sense should dictate care – let’s not prescribe controlled substances willy-nilly but let’s not be stingy with opioids in cases of acute pain. And let’s not deny patients care if they’ve been prescribed opioids in the past.

What about repercussions from insurance companies? Will insurance companies allow certain prescribers to opt out of treating their covered enrollees because of past prescriptions?

Here’s another discriminatory wrinkle: life insurance companies are turning down coverage for people who have filled prescriptions for Narcan. A friend of mine sent me a link to this story:

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/12/13/674586548/nurse-denied-life-insurance-because-she-carries-naloxone

This is a link to the story of a nurse who was turned down for life insurance because she has filled a prescription for Narcan. This nurse works at an addiction treatment program and wanted to be able to revive people and save lives. The insurance company, Primerica, is now being criticized because it turned down her request for life insurance since she filled a Narcan prescription.

Now that they are being criticized for their stance, they issued a statement saying something to the effect that they support efforts to turn the tide on the opioid epidemic. But it appears that support doesn’t extend to offering life insurance to people who have obtained a Narcan kit.

This nurse applied at a second company and was turned down again, though she was told if she got a letter from her primary care doctor explaining why the Narcan was prescribed, they might re-consider. The trouble is, in Massachusetts, personal physicians don’t write prescriptions. To reduce barriers to receiving Narcan kits, the state allows any person who wants a kit to be able to get it under a standing order.

The physician behind this standing order is a well-known and well-respected physician, prominent in the Addiction Medicine field, Dr. Alex Walley.

Doctor Walley says he’s written other letters for similar situations where people are denied life insurance due to filling Narcan prescriptions to have on hand to save lives. He’s worried – obviously – that people will be discouraged from getting Narcan kits. These kits and their availability have been responsible for saving many lives in this nation.

These examples of poor decision making do nothing but extend the misery of people with opioid use disorder, in or out of treatment, and their families.

I’ve been working in my community for seven years, trying to inform and educate other medical providers about medication-assisted treatment. Most of the time, I feel positive, thankful to form good relationships with some providers and to coordinate care for my patients on medication-assisted treatments.

Then there are days when I feel so discouraged. it feels like there’s been no progress at all with deeply embedded bias and stigma against people with opioid use providers, their families, and the professionals who try to provide care to them.