The growing epidemic of chronic opioid use and addiction, and its consequences, permeates the American medical and legal landscape. Since the spike in the use of ubiquitous pain medications in the late 1990s, there has been little actual oversight in the health care industry to regulate the prescription of these highly addicting drugs. In March 2016, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released new guidelines concerning opioid pain prescriptions. The guidelines have caused some backlash from physicians, who believe the government is now overreaching into the patient-physician relationship, and shifting from its historical role of approving the use of opioids at the regulatory level. Aside from the finger pointing amongst stakeholders in the health care industry, from the government, to big pharma, to the physicians who continue to administer, to the legal system, the fact is there is plenty of blame to go around for the cause of the epidemic. The response to the guidelines reflects the fundamental agreement that more oversight and education is needed at all levels. The CDC’s new guidelines are a broadened approach with the goal of addressing the epidemic from the top down.
The authors of the guidelines, which were an amalgam of health care professionals, cited a jaw dropping statistic. In 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid medications. That is one prescription for every adult in the U.S. The increase in prescriptions were found in the areas of family practice, general practice, and internal medicine. From 1999 through 2014, more than 165,000 people died from opioid related deaths in the U.S. The authors pointed out that contemporary studies evidenced that opioids have adverse long term affects including significant physical impairment and distress. The authors stated that, “this disorder is manifested by specific criteria such as an unsuccessful effort to cut down or control use resulting in social problems and a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.” In other words, continued prescription of opioid medications can be a contributing factor in an injured worker not returning to the work place.
The substance of the CDC guidelines can be broken into three general categories:
(1) when to start or continue administration of opioids for chronic pain symptoms;
(2) how practitioners should select a particular drug, the dosage, and when to discontinue that specific dosage; and
(3) how to mitigate the potential for addiction from start to finish.
The guidelines are not intended to apply for cancer and end-of-life palliative care. Rather, the guidelines are intended to apply to primary providers, including those who work in out-patient clinical settings.
The guidelines emphasize the benefits of non-opioid treatments. For lower back pain, exercise therapy and non-steroid anti-inflammatories are recommended. As an alternative to opioids, cognitive behavioral therapy is recommended to mitigate disability and catastrophic thinking. If, and when, opioids are utilized in a treatment program, the physician should continue prescriptions if “meaningful improvement” in pain and function outweighs the risk of continued use. The guidelines recommend that the patients demonstrate a 30% improvement in pain scores and function to justify continued opioid use. In other words, opioids must be used as a method to improve function rather than as a “band-aid” approach to sustain the status-quo condition.
During the continuation process, the physician should actively manage the patient’s case by reviewing any history of controlled substances and utilize their state’s prescription drug monitoring program periodically, while performing, at a minimum, annual urine tests. In Colorado, for example, the Workers’ Compensation Medical Treatment Guidelines (MTG), Rule 17 Exhibit 9, have independent criteria for treating chronic pain in workers’ compensation case. The MTG emphasizes similar recommendations for active case management, including urine screens. Additionally, the Department of Regulatory Agencies, in connection with several state medical boards, released an “Open Letter to the General Public on the Quad-Regulator Joint Policy for Prescribing and Dispensing Opioids” on October 15, 2014. While the policy does not draw a bright line rule of managing opioid cases in Colorado, the letter does outline the boards’ recognition that “decreasing opioid misuse and abuse in Colorado should be addressed by collaborative and constructive policies aimed at improving the prescriber education and practice, decreasing diversion, and establishing the same guidelines for all opioid prescribers and dispensers.” The board also emphasized documenting improved functions, the use of the PDMP (Prescription Drug Monitoring Program), and random drug screening based upon the provider’s clinical judgment.
The CDC guidelines are important to workers’ compensation treatment and claims. The guidelines suggest that long term opioid use can be counterproductive in workers’ compensation. How these guidelines will be used by workers’ compensation physicians, in order to return injured workers’ back to work, has yet to be known. But the guidelines can be used in an effort to mitigate risk for future exposure in the litigation process. From a legal perspective, the guidelines, though not binding on any physician, are a peer reviewed document by both experts in the field and industry stakeholders. In this author’s opinion, the guidelines itself meet the threshold evidentiary requirement in Colorado as an admissible, reliable medical document. For more information, please feel contact us with specific case-related questions. As a resource, the CDC guidelines can be found here. A copy of the Colorado joint letter on prescribing and dispensing opioids can be found by following the link located here.