Palliative Care

The opioid epidemic, surgeons, and palliative care


Recent public and professional attention to what is now called the opioid epidemic has obvious implications for surgery and palliative care. Because of the status of “epidemic,” there is a sense of urgency within the surgical and palliative care community to reevaluate the assessment and treatment of patients for whom opioid therapy is being considered.

Dr. Geoffrey P. Dunn

Dr. Geoffrey P. Dunn

The American College of Surgeons has hastened to recognize this problem as is evident in this year’s Clinical Congress symposia, PS407 Postoperative Pain Control: Strategies of Decreasing the Need for Narcotics: Part I and PS408 Surgeons’ Methods and Responses to Dealing with the Opioid Epidemic – Part II. Even with its collective experience with opioid use in hospice and palliative care, the palliative care community freely acknowledges its lack of preparation to meet the challenges resulting from the societal consequences of addiction, overdosage, and criminal activity stemming from the availability of opioids. A major concern for palliative care practitioners is to preserve the availability of opioid therapy without hindering reform of opioid use, a problem that will grow as more patients receive palliative care earlier in the course of life-limiting illness.

Although the liberal use of opioids is a common stereotype of palliative care, the use of opioids in the palliative care setting is part of a complex assessment and treatment process. Opioid use in this setting is analogous to palliative surgery in the surgical palliative care setting: It is one tool, and it is most effective and safe when based on an assessment of the more general picture. A fundamental concept of palliative care, “total pain,” provides a basis for improved pain management that goes far beyond the use and dependency on opioid therapy. Dame Cicely Saunders, who was mentored by a surgeon and later became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, defined the concept of total pain as the suffering that encompasses all of a person’s physical, psychological, social, spiritual, and practical struggles (BMJ. 2005 Jul 23;331[7510]:238). Blake Cady, a preeminent surgeon and surgical educator, once wrote that the day-to-day decisions in surgery are best made in the context of a surgical philosophy of care (J Am Coll Surg. 2005 Feb;200[2]:285-90). This applies to all interventions. Total-pain assessment provides us the opportunity to identify nonphysical factors associated with pain that might not indicate opioid use or even contraindicate their use. Existential distress or spiritual pain in a delirious or underassessed patient can be indistinguishable from physical distress. Socioeconomic factors, such as an inability to pay for medical care, can present as pain.

Surgeons are uniquely positioned as “listening posts” in the overall campaign to curb opioid misuse. They can identify patients at risk for or diagnosed with substance use disorder so they can be managed or referred for specialist treatment appropriately.

Awareness of other dimensions of pain will enhance their efficacy in this role.

Opioid sparing is a key tactic in the strategy for controlling opioid use and minimizing opioid-induced side effects. Occasionally surgical or interventional radiologic procedures are useful for this purpose.

There are immediate, specific actions surgeons can take in order to constructively participate in opioid use reform:

  • Expand your patient’s pain history to include nonphysical dimensions of pain and refer appropriately.
  • Know your opioids; carry an opioid conversion table. Errors in opioid conversion can result in significant undertreatment of pain but can result in overdosage just as easily.
  • Know your pharmacist. Pharmacists are valuable allies in safe opioid prescribing and monitoring practices.
  • Be wary of “standardized” order sets that include opioids. There is no standard dose or standard patient as we are rapidly learning from genomics.
  • Utilize your state’s patient drug-monitoring program – a new pain for clinicians, but some headaches are worth it. It clearly has already put the brakes on opioid prescribing.

Given the recent public and professional attention to the problems of opioid misuse, there is a long-overdue opportunity to reassess not only the indications and management of opioid therapy but also our more general approach to the management of pain. There is now an opportunity for surgeons to play a major role in improving opioid-prescribing practice. One potentially successful approach could be better assessment and management of pain through an awareness and application of palliative care principles. Like all encounters with uncertainty, the best way out of the current opioid dilemma is the way through: Surgeons should not abandon opioids but – in conjunction with nurses, palliative care practitioners, pharmacists, and pain and anesthesia specialists – reinvent their role in the war on suffering.

Dr. Dunn is the medical director of the palliative care consultation service at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Hamot in Erie, Pa., and vice chair of the ACS Committee on Surgical Palliative Care.

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