This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on June 26, 2022.
I’m a proud grandfather to two young granddaughters. They are my world. Watching the Supreme Court rescind women’s right to decide what to do with their own bodies made me feel angry that my granddaughters will be subjected to dehumanizing discrimination.
This tyranny against women extends beyond the Supreme Court’s decision over Roe vs. Wade.
I have read multiple accounts of women who are being denied access to opioids because they acknowledge a history of toxic adverse experiences as children or adolescents. Many such instances have occurred after women completed the Opioid Risk Tool (ORT) which asks if the person has a history of preadolescent sexual abuse.
The refusal to prescribe opioids to women with a history of preadolescent sexual abuse is a defensive measure by providers to avoid being accused of causing an Opioid Use Disorder (OUD).
Why I Developed the Opioid Risk Tool (ORT)
The Opioid Risk Tool (ORT) that I developed more than 20 years ago was designed to assess the risk of someone who was prescribed opioids for chronic pain treatment for showing aberrant drug-related behavior.
The ORT was a simple questionnaire that could be administered and scored in less than a minute. It was developed at a time when we had no way to assess the risk of developing opioid abuse in patients who were prescribed an opioid for non-cancer pain. We needed a tool to help evaluate whether the risk of potential harm from opioids outweighed the potential good for each individual.
I never intended for doctors to use the ORT to determine who should or shouldn’t be prescribed an opioid. My goal was to help doctors identify patients who might require more careful observation during treatment, not to deny the person access to opioids.
Since abuse and addiction are diagnosed by observing atypical behaviors, knowing which patients are at greatest risk for displaying those behaviors is useful in establishing appropriate levels of monitoring for abuse. This was intended to protect the patient from potential harm. It was never supposed to be used as an excuse to mistreat patients.
The original version of the ORT contained 10 questions, including whether a patient had a history of preadolescent sexual abuse. Women who answered “yes” scored 3 points; men who responded affirmatively scored 0 points. However, many people have mistakenly thought that 0 points attributed to males meant that a history of sexual abuse would not increase their risk of opioid use disorder. I could have attributed 3 points to males who answered affirmatively, but then I would have had to increase the weighting for females to 9, because the literature supported a much greater (about 3 times greater) risk for females vs. males with a history of sexual abuse. All of the other scores would have had to be adjusted as well. The higher you scored, the more closely your doctor would need to monitor your opioid use during your treatment.
The questionnaire was based on the best evidence at the time. Multiple studies have since confirmed the validity of the questions used in the questionnaire. However, many people have criticized the question on the ORT that asked about a history of preadolescent sexual abuse because of a perceived gender inequity. In addition, some doctors have generalized the ORT’s question about preadolescent trauma so that it applies to a history of female sexual abuse at all ages.
I have written that the ORT has been weaponized by doctors who are looking for a reason to deny patients — particularly, women — adequate pain medication.
There are doctors who use their power to determine whether to treat a woman’s chronic pain with an opioid or allow her to suffer needlessly based on the ORT’s answers. This is no less malevolent than a forced taper resulting in suicides or the use of the CDC opioid prescribing guideline to criminally charge providers for not following the CDC’s recommendation. In all of these situations, an injustice is being committed against innocent people.
It is also not much different from the Supreme Court’s decision to ignore a woman’s right to access full reproductive rights. Both are attacks on women.
Fortunately, Martin D. Cheatle, Ph.D. and his team published Development of the Revised Opioid Risk Tool to Predict Opioid Use Disorder in Patients with Chronic Non-Malignant Pain in the July 2019 edition of Journal of Pain. In his research, Dr. Cheatle found that a revised version of the ORT (ORT-OUD) using 9 questions instead of 10 questions was as accurate as, if not better than, the original ORT in weighing the risk of patients for OUD. The revised ORT eliminates the use of a woman’s sexual abuse history as a factor.
At a time when females have had their human rights taken away by a Supreme Court vote, it is especially appropriate to reconsider how we assess risks for potential opioid abuse for women.
It distresses me to know that, while the original ORT served to help assess the risk opioids posed for individuals, it has also caused harm. Since the question about a woman’s sexual abuse history does not provide any additional benefit, there is no reason to retain it. The ORT-OUD should be used instead of the original ORT.
Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a Senior Fellow, Center for U.S. Policy (CUSP) and Chief Medical Officer of PainScript. He consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is the author of “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary “The Painful Truth” which aired nationally on public broadcasting stations.
You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.