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Opioid crisis offers poignant lessons for public health

Populations and circumstances matter


As a medical student in New York City in the mid-1980s, I did several of my clinical clerkships at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. One night during my general surgery rotation, there was a young woman with anal cancer who complained of pain.

Illustration of individuals falling off a cliff of opioid pills wildpixel/Thinkstock

My resident did not want to give her more medication and I asked why. After all, this was a cancer center with progressive ideas about pain management, this patient was suffering, and she was ill enough to be hospitalized.

The resident responded to my inquiry: “She doesn’t have a terminal condition and she has an addictive personality.” It seemed to me a draconian (and perhaps sexist) response in a hospital where patient-controlled analgesia was becoming routine and, as an aspiring psychiatrist, I didn’t quite trust the surgical resident’s evaluation of the patient’s personality or his ability to predict if she might become addicted to opiates.

This encounter happened about 6 years after Jane Porter and Hershel Jink, MD, had published a letter titled, “Addiction Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics” in the New England Journal of Medicine (1980 Jan 10;302:123) with the following finding: “... of 11,800 patients given narcotic painkillers while in hospital, only four developed an addiction to those drugs.” This fragment of a sentence, published as a one-paragraph letter and not as a full, peer-reviewed study, was in the process of changing how all of American medicine responded to pain.

In his book, “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” (Bloomsbury Press, 2015), journalist Sam Quinones was quick to point out that these findings were made at a time when doctors, like my surgical resident, were hesitant to use opiates for fear of addiction. Their use was limited to cancer patients, postoperative patients, and those suffering from an acute injury. This finding that prescribed opiates did not cause addiction was true in these hospitalized patients, at a time when pills were doled out with caution for short-term use, and their use for chronic pain had not yet been tested.

Nearly 40 years later, we know that the answer to that national experiment did not work out so well: A proportion of patients given long-term, sometimes high-dose, opiates for chronic pain do sometimes become addicted. Some chronic pain patients received narcotics at “pill mills,” and some went on to use heroin obtained illegally. Furthermore, the widespread use of these medicines made them more readily available to those looking for something besides pain relief.

I would like to suggest that the opioid epidemic is not solely the fault of the medical community: We had drug addiction long before we had the Porter and Jink paragraph and not all addiction starts with a prescription pad. Still, the lesson for public health is a poignant one: Populations and circumstances matter. Be careful with generalizations.

Still, we see these generalizations all the time. I am sometimes surprised at how many people have “the answer.” Whether it’s more widespread availability of Narcan, medication-assisted treatment (MAT), safe injection sites, 12-step programs, or “Just Say No,” every method has its proponents. I always wonder when I see public health officials propose safe injection sites as something that would surely save thousands of lives, citing data out of cities such as Vancouver, as well as in Europe, and Australia, if results in those places would transfer to my city – Baltimore – where drug addiction, violence, and poverty are rampant. Perhaps they would, and I would love to see Baltimore try anything that might work. But I hope cities that do set up such sites will follow the numbers and halt any program that does not offer robust results.

I wonder, as well, why, with the clear success of MAT strategies in reducing mortality, we don’t experiment with ways of making these methods more accessible. Might Suboxone work if doctors could prescribe it as easily as they can prescribe oxycodone, with no 8-hour course or DEA waiver? Might methadone both work and be more acceptable to patients if given in a way that didn’t require daily travel to a clinic for administration? With such a deadly pervasive epidemic, I wonder also about our focus on treating addiction, when it seems we should have a parallel focus on understanding and addressing the factors that cause addiction. Medical prescribing is but one avenue to addiction, yet we have no understanding as to why some people become addicted when others do not. Shouldn’t we be able to prevent addiction? From Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” to Donald Trump’s physical border wall, there are many answers, but few solutions.

There are other public health issues that suffer from the same generalizations. In psychiatry, advocacy groups tout involuntary outpatient treatment as a successful way of getting treatment to vulnerable individuals who will not willingly negotiate their own care. While a pilot study at Bellevue showed no benefit to mandated care, a follow-up study showed that mandated treatment was effective at reducing hospital days. While outpatient commitment studies look at rates of hospitalization, incarceration, and quality-of-life measures, mandated treatment is often cited as a means to prevent all forms of violence, including mass shootings, while there is no evidence to support these ideas. Still, 47 states and the District of Columbia now have outpatient commitment laws.

Does involuntary care benefit those with substance use disorders? In Massachusetts, Section 35 allows for civil commitment for drug treatment, and many of the treatment facilities are run by the Department of Corrections. It would be good to know if these measures worked. So far, it looks like opioid deaths in Massachusetts have stabilized, while the overdose death rate continues to rise in other states. Whether this is a result of Section 35 or other measures is unknown.

Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Dinah Miller

I’m not against innovation, and desperate situations call for creative responses. We need to be careful that our responses are measured and these experiments are contained while ascertaining what really does work and what does not cause unintended harms. Will a concrete wall stem the flow of illegal heroin? I imagine a new world of drones making drug drops.

Sometimes our innovative best guesses don’t work, and sometimes they do. Despite easy access to antidepressant medications, a national suicide hotline, increased numbers of mental health professionals, and anti-stigma/awareness campaigns, suicide rates continue to rise. Efforts to end smoking, however, have been quite successful, as have measures to get Americans to buckle their seat belts, and these measures have decreased mortality rates. The recommendation for healthy women to take hormone therapy is a good example: It was an innovative recommendation to help cardiac and orthopedic outcomes, yet studies that were run alongside these recommendations were quick to show an unintended increased risk of breast and uterine cancer.

I don’t know what happened to the young woman on my surgical rotation. If the decision were mine, I would have given her more pain medication, even now, but I don’t know if that would have been the right thing to do. Before we embrace any measure as a panacea for any of our many societal woes, it’s important to carefully consider the details of our evidence, and to look carefully at our outcomes in a variety of populations and circumstances.

Dr. Miller is the coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice in Baltimore.

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