The Minnesota legislature has a proposed law to make checking the Minnesota Prescription Monitoring Program database (PMP) mandatory prior to prescribing any opioid medication. The purpose of the law is to help identify people abusing medications and to prevent the explosion of overdose-related deaths.
Unfortunately, this is another oversimplification of the opioid problem in our country. Abuse of opioids is a very real problem. The solution is much more complex then checking a database for the number of prescriptions being taken. Mandating this step will only have a very minor effect on the problem of opioid abuse.
Opioids Abuse And The Database
Opioid abuse is a very complex problem. There are many people who have very difficult to treat pain problems that are dependent on these medications, and they take them on a very reliable basis without abuse. Currently, most pain physicians, including my practice, have a variety of steps they take to reduce the potential for abuse. One of the easiest is to look at the PMP database. We sometimes find abnormalities of behavior there, but it is not that common. Most often we find the patient is using both an opioid and a drug for anxiety that can cause a significant interaction. Then we need to advise a patient on these issues.
Other steps taken include a comprehensive medical exam for appropriate problems to be treated and finding alternative treatment plans. Believe it or not, the worst problem is obtaining insurance company approval for more expensive options with better outcomes and less risks to the patient. Other steps taken include drug testing, checking state criminal databases and evaluating psychological stability before prescribing. For those wondering, our practice does check the PMP for everyone for each refill.
Mandatory checking of the PMP does not significantly help solve the opioid abuse problem. It is only a feel good step for politicians to say they are doing something. The problem runs much deeper. First off, a lot of people who are abusing opioids should probably never have been placed on the medication. The next step is that they should not be on them for any length of time – they may be okay for a very acute problem – but then they need to be stopped. Addiction is a medical condition. It is tough to treat and programs to help with addiction need funding and staff, and this needs to be promoted.
If the legislature wants to have a positive role in the addiction crisis, then they should be mandating insurance coverage for alternative treatments for pain besides opioids. Alternative treatments include everything from prolonged physical therapy, massage, chiropractic, and different medications, to comprehensive pain programs and implantable pain control devices. Obtaining insurance approval, especially from Medicaid or Medicare, is time consuming and often almost impossible. Physicians are extremely frustrated by the obstacles put up by insurance companies when better and cheaper alternatives are routinely denied in managing pain.
The last difficulty in understanding pain and the opioid crisis goes beyond the problems of addiction. Pain is extremely complex and one of the main tools to control symptoms is opioid medication. This is the same tool we have used for over 150 years. A third of the world population struggles with pain problems. Virtually no dedicated funding goes to research on pain compared to other medical problems. Our knowledge level in regards to pain as a disease is at the level where cancer was in about 1950. If the world wants to tackle the problem of opioid abuse, it really needs to fund research on all aspects of pain to solve the issues suffered by a third of the world population.
Thomas Cohn, MD
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