When the Joint Commission dubbed pain assessment the “fifth vital sign” in 2001 and insisted that all outpatients be assessed for pain at each office visit, they had no idea of the unintended consequences that would result.
The problem they wanted to solve was undertreatment of postoperative pain, but the problem they helped create far outweighed any benefit to hospitalized patients. They would have been wise to listen to R.E.M.’s song “Everybody Hurts” and recognize that pain is a fact of life that doesn’t always require medical intervention. Combined with aggressive marketing of opioids by pharmaceutical companies, these 2 factors led to the opioid epidemic we currently find ourselves in.
The good news is that there has been a significant drop in opioid prescribing in recent years. Between 2014 and 2017, opioid prescriptions declined from 7.4% to 6.4%, based on a national electronic health record review.1 Reducing opioid prescribing for patients with chronic noncancer pain, however, is difficult. Although there are no truly evidence-based methods, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided expert advice on improving opioid prescribing, and Drs. Mendoza and Russell provide thoughtful recommendations for tapering opioids in patients on chronic therapy in this issue of JFP.
In addition, Patchett et al describe their experience with a practice-wide approach to reducing chronic opioid prescribing in their practice at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. Using a systematic approach, they were able to reduce the number of patients on chronic opioid therapy by 22%.
And there is more good news from a 2018 JAMA study.2 Patients with moderate to severe chronic back, hip, or knee pain were randomized to either an opioid-based pain treatment regimen or a nonopioid-based plan. While pain-related functional status was similar in both groups after 12 months, the patients in the nonopioid group had significantly better pain control than those in the opioid group. Amazing to find that the nonopioid approach was superior! Who would have guessed?
All family physicians should share the results of this study with their chronic pain patients and follow Pachett’s lead in a practice-wide approach to reducing opioid prescribing. We were part of the problem and must be part of the solution.