Archive for the ‘Risks for addiction’ Category

Governor Scott’s Flamingo Express to Misery

Flamingo Express of Florida

All I could think was, “What can he be thinking???”

 I was reading an article about the governor of Florida and his bizarre decision to block the formation of a prescription monitoring program in his state. (1)

 Prescription monitoring programs are databases that contain lists of controlled substances a patient receives, the prescribing doctors, and the dispensing pharmacies. Usually, only approved physicians can get access to these databases. Prescription monitoring programs help prevent “doctor shopping,” which is the term describing the actions of a patient who goes from one doctor to another to get prescription pills, usually opioids, without telling the doctors about each other. Addicts do this to supply their ever-increasing tolerance for the drugs. Drug dealers do this to get pills to sell and make money.

 Forty-two states have approved the formation of prescription monitoring databases, and thirty-four states have operational databases. Florida was one of the last to approve the formation of such a program, in 2009, long after this recent wave of prescription pain pill addiction burned through the country. Now, the new Florida governor wants to cut this program out completely, before it even starts.

 How big of a deal is this?

In the latest survey, 5.3 million people in the U.S. used prescription pain pills nonmedically over the past month. This means they used them in ways not intended, or for reasons not intended by the prescriber… for example, to get high. In the last year, 2.2 million people misused these prescription pain pills for the first time. Our young people are particularly at risk; between 2002 and 2009, the percentage of 12 to 17 years olds misusing prescription opioids rose from 4.1% to 4.8%. Not all of these people will become addicted, thankfully. Some will only experiment, and be able to stop before addiction develops. Many won’t be able to stop taking pills, and will progress into the misery of addiction. Others will die of drug overdoses. (2)

 Why pick on Florida?

Florida is infamous for its pain clinics. As a reporter for Time Magazine pointed out, there are more pain clinics in South Florida than there are McDonald’s franchises. In 2009, 98 of the top 100 prescribers of oxycodone in the nation were all located in Florida. Altogether, these doctors prescribed 19 million dosage units of oxycodone in 2009. Estimates of the numbers of pain clinics located in South Florida vary, but most sources say between 150 and 175. (3, 4) Many of these clinics are “pill mills,” where doctors freely prescribe controlled substances with little regard to usual prescribing standards and guidelines.

 Are all these clinics pill mills?

No. Some of the pain clinics are legitimate, and their doctors follow best practice guidelines, providing quality care to patients with pain. But careful monitoring and screening for adverse events, including the development of addiction, takes time. A conscientious doctor, trying  to do a good job, isn’t going to be able to see fifty pain patients in one day.

 I’ve talked to addicts who were previously patients at these pill mills. They describe how they were shuffled through rapidly, sometimes not even seeing the doctor. Some addicts say they were asked what pills they wanted, and quickly written that prescription, with little or no conversation beyond that. That was the extent of the visit. 

But Florida’s problem doesn’t stay in Florida. Appalachian states like Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina all have addicts who buy these prescription pain pills after they’re transported out of Florida. The DEA sees so many pain pills being transported from Florida to Appalachian states that they call it the “Flamingo Express.” In one of the methadone clinics where I work, I’ve noticed a peculiar upswing in the reported use of Opana, a brand name for the drug oxymorphone. It’s not a drug I’ve seen prescribed much in NC. When I ask patients where the pills come from, many say, “Florida.”

 Governors of several states, including West Virginia and Kentucky, along with congressmen from New York and Rhode Island, have sent a letter to Florida’s Governor Scott, urging him to reconsider his decision to torpedo plans for a prescription monitoring program. Since the leading cause of death in West Virginians for those under the age of 45 is drug overdose, I can see why this governor is protesting Governor Scott’s poor decision. (4)

 It’s estimated that setting up a prescription monitoring program costs about one million dollars. The Florida Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Fund, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to raising money for the program, says on their website that they’ve already raised at least half of that from donations. Other states have received the Harold Rogers grant money, available from the federal government to set up these monitoring databases. This leads me to question the excuse of “budget cuts” as the reason for Governor Scott’s poor decision.

 I’ve also seen internet stories that mention the governor’s fear of invasion of privacy. This is a legitimate concern, but there are ways to safeguard the information in such a database, and laws that can regulate who has access. I’m no fan of the government peering into my business, but this database is essential, given the overwhelming numbers of people struggling with pain pill addiction. For a description of the ways in which the North Carolina prescription monitoring database has helped me help my patients, please see the preceding blog entry. It’s been a lifesaver.  

  1. http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2011-03-05/news/fl-prescription-drug-forum-20110305_1_pill-mills-prescription-drug-monitoring-program-attorney-general-pam-bondi (accessed 3/6/11)
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2010). Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-38A, HHS Publication No. SMA 10-4586Findings). Rockville, MD.
  3. Thomas R. Collins, Invasion of the Pill Mills in South Florida, Time, Tuesday, Apr. 13, 2010,  Ft. Lauderdale, FL
  4.  http://manchin.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?   ContentRecord_id=f62482b4-f6dd-4adc-8b49-1563d8fa605b&ContentType_id=ec9a1142-0ea4-4086-95b2-b1fc9cc47db5&Group_id=e3f09d56-daa7-43fd-aa8b-bd2aeb8d7777&MonthDisplay=2&YearDisplay=2011 (accessed 3/8/11)

The Pain Management Movement

 In the late 1990’s, organizations like the American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Management declared that doctors in the U.S. were doing a lousy job of treating pain, and were under-prescribing opioid pain medications, due to a misguided fear of causing addiction. As a result, there was a national push to treat pain more aggressively. Some states even passed pain initiatives, mandating treatment for pain. Lawsuits were brought against doctors who didn’t adequately treat pain. The Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JACHO), the organization that inspects hospitals to assess their quality of care, made the patient’s level of pain the “fifth vital sign,” after body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Pain management specialists encouraged more liberal prescribing of pain medication. These experts told their primary care colleagues that the chance of developing addiction from opioids prescribed for pain was about one percent.

With these limited facts, the pain management movement was off and running. Many pain management specialists, some of whom were paid speakers for the drug companies that manufactured powerful opioid pain medications, spoke at seminars about the relative safety of opioids, used long term for chronic pain. Pain management specialists taught these views to small town family practice and general medicine doctors, who were relatively inexperienced in the treatment of either pain or addiction.

The problem was…the specialists were wrong.

These specialists, in their well-intentioned enthusiasm to relieve suffering, used flawed data when reciting the risk for addiction. The one percent figure came from a study looking at patients treated in the hospital for acute pain, which is quite different from treating outpatients with chronic non cancer pain. (1) In other words, they compared apples to oranges.

To many addiction specialists, an addiction risk of only one percent seemed improbable, since the general population has an addiction risk estimated from six to twelve percent. Surely, being prescribed pain pills would not lessen the risk for addiction. Yet the one percent figure was often cited by many pain management professionals, as well as by the representatives of the drug companies selling strong opioids. 

Some pain management specialists even took a scolding tone when they spoke of some primary care physicians’ reluctance to prescribe strong opioids. They often muddied the waters, and grouped patients with cancer pain, acute pain, and chronic non-cancer pain together, and spoke of them as one group. This can feel insulting to doctors who, though reluctant to prescribe opioids endlessly for a patient with chronic non cancer pain, are adamant about treating end-of-life cancer pain aggressively with opioids. No compassionate physician limits opioids for patients with cancer pain or with acute, short term pain. However, chronic non-cancer pain is different, with different outcomes than acute pain or cancer pain.

 We didn’t learn from history, or we would have learned that when many people have access to opioids, many will develop addiction.  We are scientifically more advanced than one hundred years ago, but we still have the same reward pathway in the brain. The human organism hasn’t changed physiologically. The present epidemic of opioid addiction is reminiscent of the early part of the twentieth century, just after the Bayer drug company released heroin, which for a short period of time was sold without a prescription, before physicians recognized that over prescription of opioids caused iatrogenic addiction.

 Few pain patients intended to become addicted. Some addicted people blame their doctors for causing their opioid addiction, but most doctors were conscientiously trying to treat the pain reported by their patient, and the pain management experts had told these doctors the risk of addiction was so low they didn’t have to worry about it.

Certainly many patients made bad choices to misuse their medications, either from curiosity or peer influence, pushing them farther over the line into addiction. Patients need to recognize their own contribution to their addiction. But with opioid addiction, as the disease progresses, the addict loses the power of choice that he once had. If the addict is fortunate enough to have a moment of clarity, before the disease progresses too far, he may be able to stop on his own, without treatment.

 By their very nature, opioids produce pleasure. Any time doctors prescribe something that causes pleasure, we should expect addiction to occur. Some people, for whatever reason, feel more pleasure than others when they take opioids, and seem to be at higher risk for addiction. As discussed in previous chapters, genetics, environment, and individual factors all influence this risk.

Opioids treat pain – both physical and emotional. Many of the neuronal pathways in the brain for sensing and experiencing pain are the same for both physical and psychological pain. For example, the brain pathways activated when you drop a hammer on your toe are much the same as when you have to tell your spouse you spent the rent money while gambling. Opioids make both types of pain better. Chronic pain patients with psychological illnesses are at increased risk for inappropriate use of their pain medications.

 In a recent study, the rate of developing true opioid addiction in patients taking opioids for chronic pain was found to be increased fourfold over the risk of non-medicated people. (2) Instead of a one percent incidence, as estimated by pain medicine specialists in the past, it now appears eighteen to forty-five percent of patients maintained long-term on opioids develop true addiction, not mere physical dependency. (3) If this information had been available in the late 1990’s, doctors may have taken more precautions when they prescribed strong opioids for chronic pain.

 Researchers have identified the risk factors for addiction among patients who take opioids long-term (more than three months) for chronic pain. Studies now show that a personal past history of addiction is the strongest predictor of future problems with addiction, as would be expected.  A patient with a family history of addiction is also at increased risk for addiction, as are patients with psychiatric illness of any kind, and younger patients. (4)

However, at the height of the pain control movement, there were no good studies of the addiction risk when opioids were used for more than three months. The little information that did exist was misused, resulting in an incredible underestimation of the risk of addiction in patients with chronic pain, who were treated with opioid medications for more than three months.

 With the momentum of the movement for better control of pain, both acute and chronic, the number of prescriptions for opioid pain pills increased dramatically. In the years from 1997 through 2006, prescription sales of hydrocodone increased 244%, while oxycodone increased 732% during that same time period. Prescription sales for methadone increased a staggering 1177%. (5)

It’s not just patients who are at risk for abuse and addiction. The increased amount of opioids being prescribed meant there was more opioid available to be diverted to the black market. When an addicting drug is made more available, it will be misused more often.

  1. Porter and Jick, New England Journal of Medicine, 302 (2) (Jan. 10, 1980) p. 123.
  2. Michael F. Fleming, Stacey L. Balousek, Cynthia L. Klessig, et al. “Substance Use Disorders in a Primary Care Sample Receiving Daily Opioid Therapy,” Journal of Pain, 207; Vol. 8, issue 7: 573-582.
  3. 7. Steven Passik M.D., Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, Vol. 21 No. 5, (May 2001), pp.359 – 360.
  4. Chou, R, Fanciullo, G, Fine, P, et. al., “Opioid Treatment Guidelines: Clinical guidelines for the use of Chronic Opioid Therapy in chronic, non-cancer pain.” The Journal of Pain, 2009, Vol. 10, No. 2. pp. 113-130

5. Andrea Trescott, MD, Stanford Helm, MD, el. al., “Opioids in the Management of Chronic Non-cancer Pain: An Update of American Society of the Interventional Pain Physicians’ Guidelines,” Pain Physician 2008: Opioids Special Issue: 11:S5 – S 62.