Media Reports About Opioids Have the Wrong Focus

Media Reports About Opioids Have the Wrong Focus by Lynn R. Webster @LynnRWebsterMD

The headline reads, “As prescription opioid addiction rises, help from doctors lags.” That belies the following statement by Washington Post reporters Scott Clement and Lenny Bernstein:

“Despite the high rate of dependence, the poll finds that a majority of long-term opioid users say the drugs have dramatically improved their lives. Opioids relieve pain that is otherwise intractable, they said in follow-up interviews, allowing them to walk, work and pursue other activities. Fully two-thirds of users surveyed said relief is well worth the risk of addiction.”

Different Media Perspectives on Opioids

The Washington Post article where this was first reported began with, “One-third of Americans who have taken prescription opioids for at least two months say they became addicted to, or physically dependent on, the powerful painkillers, according to a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey.”

The article could just as easily have read, “Fully two-thirds of Americans who have taken prescription painkillers for at least two months say the drugs have dramatically improved their lives and well worth the risk of addiction.” [Emphasis added.]

The article is the same, but because of the change in emphasis, the message is entirely different. In fact, the alternative introduction would have acknowledged that some people benefit greatly from opioids. Maybe that would have been more balanced and objective than what appeared.

Many journalists have taken sides in the discussion about prescription opioids. Unsurprisingly, their articles either bury the needs of people in pain, or do not mention the needs of pain patients at all.

Media Reports Can Lead to Anti-Opioid Frenzy

Physicians and other providers hear the stomping of regulatory and legal footsteps. Media reports feed into the anti-opioid frenzy. As a result, many healthcare professionals choose not to contest the political tsunami of opposition to opioids, or to defend the right of people in pain to obtain humane treatment.

Even when healthcare professionals try to advocate for people in pain, they may be pressured to stop. For example, I received an email from a colleague who said a pharmacist demanded that she lower the dose of an opioid for a patient. She refused, so the pharmacists reported her to the state department of health. The investigation is ongoing.

What About Patients Who Need Opioids for Pain?

Other clinicians have told me that Workers’ Compensation has demanded that patients who are stable and functional on doses above 120 mg morphine equivalent be reduced to, or below, 120 mg morphine equivalent without explanation except that the dose exceeds the payer’s acceptable level. Of course, the payer doesn’t examine the patient or speak with the patient to learn the needs of the individual or to find out what impact the dose reduction may have on the patient.

With all of the attention on reducing the supply of opioids, there doesn’t seem to be much concern for the people in pain. The Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post articles reflect the real world of people in pain with their reporting predominantly describes the risks, and not the benefits, of opioids.

This doesn’t mean that the media, or anyone, should advocate for the use of opioids. In fact, opioids should not be the focus of the discussion. Rather, the focus should be placed on the needs of people suffering from intractable pain or addictions, and on all of the potential treatments. Both topics can be addressed without abandoning the needs of people who represent the largest public health problem in America: chronic pain.

Purchase my book, The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us (available on Amazon), or read a free excerpt here.

The Painful Truth @lynnrwebstermd Lynn R. Webster

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Copyright 2016, Lynn Webster, MD

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