The damage done by the war on opioids: the pendulum has swung too far
Timothy J Atkinson,1 Michael E Schatman,2 Jeffrey Fudin1,3–5
1PGY2 Pain and Palliative Care Pharmacy Residency, Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany, NY, 2Foundation for Ethics in Pain Care, Bellevue, WA, 3School of Pharmacy, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, 4Western New England University College of Pharmacy, Springfield, MA, 5Buffalo College of Pharmacy, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY, USA
In the United States, patterns of opioid use for the management of pain have drastically changed over the past 30 years. In the 1980s, the American pain medicine landscape was characterized by opiophobia, the fear to prescribe opioids. Around the turn of the millennium, however, we witnessed a fairly rapid shift to opiophilia, or the "overprescribing" of opioids. The ubiquitous undertreatment of pain was the catalyst for clinicians and pain societies to successfully lobby for increased use of opioids for all pain types, including non-cancer pain. The approval of new standards for pain management incorporating pain as the "fifth vital sign" by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO)1 seemingly fueled this increase in opioid prescription. From 1991–2009, prescriptions for opioid analgesics tripled, with emergency department visits related to non-medical use of prescription opioid overdoses doubling from 2005–2009.2 In 2010, accidental overdose deaths associated with opioids increased for the eleventh consecutive year, highlighting the drastic shift in opioid use.3 The figurative pendulum began to swing toward opiophobia following the publication of data that demonstrated that the risk of addiction associated with chronic opioid use was likely underestimated.4 Guidelines for the use of controlled substances released by the Federation of State Medical Boards of the US in 1998 reflected this change in attitude.5 At present, there is a general consensus that opioids are over-prescribed and education among health care providers is sorely lacking, with considerable debate on how to appropriately address the issue not yet resulting in a balance between treating legitimate pain patients, and mitigating abuse, overdoses, and related deaths. In this environment, physicians and non-physician prescribers, health systems, regulatory agencies, and insurers are seeking tangible targets for intervention.
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