Health Professionals Call on the CDC to Address Misapplication of Its Guideline

Stefan G. Kertesz, MD Pens a Letter to the CDC

Health Professionals Call on the CDC to Address Misapplication of Its Guideline on Opioids for Chronic Pain through Public Clarification and Impact Evaluation by Health Professionals for People in Pain is a letter that I recently had the privilege of signing. (Click here to see the signatures.)

Health professionals can still add their names, because signatures are currently being solicited.

The decision about when to submit the letter will be made by Stefan G. Kertesz, MD, Professor of Medicine at University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. He wrote the letter and is leading this effort.

Please let your providers know, and ask them to consider signing the letter, too.

Refer them to this blog, if you think it would be appropriate. Or suggest that they go to this site (click on “About Us” to learn more about the site’s five-person team, led by Sally Satel).  They will be able to read the letter for themselves there and, at the bottom of that page, there is a clickable “Sign Here” button.

The Letter reads:

Date: September 24, 2018

Any professional who cares for patients, including physicians, pharmacists, nurses, psychologists and social workers, is invited to sign on to this letter, as are any professional organizations that wish to endorse formally. 

I. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, issued a Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain for primary care physicians. Its laudable goals were to improve communication between clinicians and patients about the risks and benefits of opioid therapy for chronic pain, improve the safety and effectiveness of pain treatment, and reduce the risks associated with long-term opioid therapy. The Guideline reflected the work of appointed experts who achieved consensus on the matter of opioid use in chronic pain.

Among its recommendations are that opioids should rarely be a first option for chronic pain, that clinicians must carefully weigh the risks and benefits of maintaining opioids in patients already on them, and that established or transferring patients should be offered the opportunity to re-evaluate their continued use at high dosages (i.e., > 90 MME, morphine milligram equivalents).

In light of evidence that prescribed dose may pose risks for adverse patient events, clinicians and patients may choose to consider dose reductions, when they can be accomplished without adverse effect, and with possible benefit, according to some trial data.

Nonetheless, it is imperative that healthcare professionals and administrators realize that the Guideline does not endorse mandated involuntary dose reduction or discontinuation, as data to support the efficacy and safety of this practice are lacking.

II. Within a year of Guideline publication, there was evidence of widespread misapplication of some of the Guideline recommendations. Notably, many doctors and regulators incorrectly believed that the CDC established a threshold of 90 MME as a de facto daily dose limit. Soon, clinicians prescribing higher doses, pharmacists dispensing them, and patients taking them came under suspicion.

Actions that followed included payerimposed payment barriers, pharmacy chain demands for the medical chart, or explicit taper plans as a precondition for filling prescriptions, high-stakes metrics imposed by quality agencies, and legal or professional risks for physicians, often based on invocation of the CDC’s authority. Taken in combination, these actions have led many health care providers to perceive a significant category of vulnerable patients as institutional and professional liabilities to be contained or eliminated, rather than as people needing care.

III. Adverse experiences for these patients are documented predominantly in anecdotal form, but they are concerning. Patients with chronic pain, who are stable and, arguably, benefiting from long-term opioids, face draconian and often rapid involuntary dose reductions. Often, alternative pain care options are not offered, not covered by insurers, or not accessible. Others are pushed to undergo addiction treatment or invasive procedures (such as spinal injections), regardless of whether clinically appropriate.

Consequently, patients have endured not only unnecessary suffering, but some have turned to suicide or illicit substance use. Others have experienced preventable hospitalizations or medical deterioration in part because insurers, regulators and other parties have deployed the 90 MME threshold as a both a professional standard and a threshold for professional suspicion. Under such pressure, care decisions are not always based on the best interests of the patient.

lV. Action is Required: The 2016 Guideline specifically states, “the CDC is committed to evaluating the guideline to identify the impact of the recommendations on clinician and patient outcomes, both intended and unintended, and revising the recommendations in future updates when warranted”. The CDC has a moral imperative to uphold its avowed goals and to protect patients.

Therefore, we call upon the CDC to take action:

1. We urge the CDC to follow through with its commitment to evaluate impact by consulting directly with a wide range of patients and caregivers, and by engaging epidemiologic experts to investigate reported suicides, increases in illicit opioid use and, to the extent possible, expressions of suicidal ideation following involuntary opioid taper or discontinuation.

2. We urge the CDC to issue a bold clarification about the 2016 Guideline – what it says and what it does not say, particularly on the matters of opioid taper and discontinuation.

Signatories here represent their own views, and do not purport to reflect formal positions of their employing agencies, governmental or otherwise. For questions regarding the letter please contact Stefan G. Kertesz, MD, Professor of Medicine at University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine (




  1. Jacqueline Schneider on October 6, 2018 at 11:48 pm

    How can my physician sign this letter? Thank you for speaking up for chronic pain patients! This is the most inhumane attack on a group of American citizens!

    “Governments have an obligation to take measures to protect people under their jurisdiction from inhuman and degrading treatment. Failure of governments to take reasonable measures to ensure accessibility of pain treatment, which leaves millions of people to suffer needlessly from severe and often prolonged pain, raises questions whether they have adequately discharged this obligation.”

  2. Bill Hitchcock on October 7, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Thank you Dr. Webster. Well written and accurately conveys the problem and adverse consequences to the CDC Guidelines that we chronic pain patients have encountered.
    God Bless,
    Bill Hitchcock

  3. Leslie Bythewood on October 7, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    Thank you, Drs. Webster and Kertesz, on behalf of the millions of chronic pain patients all across the nation who’ve been suffering from this unbelievably misguided, myopic and misinterpreted CDC guideline for far too long. I echo the same question that was posed by Ms. Jacqueline Schneider: How do I get my doctor to endorse Dr. Kertesz’s succinct letter?

    Best wishes,
    Leslie Bythewood

  4. Jeffrey Fudin on October 7, 2018 at 8:12 pm


  5. Andrea on October 8, 2018 at 3:09 am

    Fantastic letter, wonderful collaboration, sharing everywhere.

  6. Denna Weber on October 9, 2018 at 12:37 am

    Great letter. Although opioids are sometimes misused or misprecribed, there are also misconceptions. One that helped me most with chronic and daily pain (due to misplaced screws in my spine) is now offered only to cancer patients. Yes, they have pain; but who’s to judge whose pain is worse? And who is helped from a fentanyl lozenge? Any medication should be taken carefully. I’m one who took less than prescribed— and it darn near took my life! I sign this letter wholeheartedly.

  7. Dianna Byrne on October 14, 2018 at 1:25 am

    How I pray this letter will get the attention of those with power to change these misconceptions brought forth by the CDC in 2016

  8. Theresa Grimes PhDc, FNP-BC, RN-BC, CCRN on October 25, 2018 at 10:13 pm

    Thank you for clearly expressing what needs to be done for patient safety and pain management.

  9. Brenda E. Hocutt on October 29, 2018 at 8:13 pm

    Without my consent, my long-term extended release pain medication was summarily decreased from 60 mg, 1 Q 12 hours, to 13 mg, 1 Q 12 hours. When I return to the clinic in November, I was informed (Sept. 2018) that the medication will again be decreased by one-half to 15 mg, 1 Q 12 hrs. The poor sleep that I experienced, prior to the decrease in medication, has dropped like a stone, to less than 4 hours of sleep per night, and that very fragmented. I work full-time (23 years now at the same high pressure law firm) and am at work today, after less than 3 hours of very fragmented sleep last night. I have very little input to my specialized pain management clinic’s revised “practice.”

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