Filling opioid prescriptions akin to a Sisyphean task


This is just a regular day in outpatient palliative care in the era of the opioid epidemic.

The epidemic has caused tremendous pain and suffering for millions of people over the past 2 decades – namely those lost to opioid overdoses and their loved ones. And for the most part, tightening access to opioids for routine aches and pains among a relatively healthy population is not wrong, in my opinion, as long as those restrictions are based in good faith on robust evidence.

But the hidden cost of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2016 opioid prescribing guidelines for nonmalignant pain, as well as the flurry of restrictive state laws they generated, is felt every day by patients with serious illness even though the guidelines were never meant to affect them. Patients with active cancer, receiving palliative care services, or at the end of life, were supposed to be exempted from these guidelines since good evidence supports the use of opioids in these populations.

Instead of preserving access to desperately needed pain medicine for those suffering with serious illness, states and insurers have aggressively sought to gatekeep opioids from everyone, resulting in stigma, delays, and needless suffering.

Several recent studies have revealed the effects of this gatekeeping on patients with cancer.

A qualitative study with 26 advanced cancer patients described the demoralization and stigma many patients felt when taking opioids, which they directly tied to media messaging around the opioid epidemic. Even when they reluctantly agreed to take opioids to treat cancer-related pain, there were systemic impediments to achieving adequate pain relief – similar to my experience with Joan – that were directly caused by insurance and pharmacy constraints.

Those of us who care for oncology patients also appear to be undertreating cancer-related pain. Another recent study that found the amount of opioid medications prescribed to an advanced cancer patient near the end of life dropped by 38% between 2007 and 2017. The authors suggest that a direct consequence of this decline in appropriate opioid prescribing is an observed 50% rise in emergency department visits over the same time period by cancer patients for pain-related reasons.

This makes sense – if patients aren’t routinely prescribed the opioids they need to manage their cancer-related pain; or, if the stigma against using opioids is so harsh that it causes patients to shun opioids; or, if there are so many system barriers in place to prevent patients from obtaining opioids in a timely manner – then patients’ pain will crescendo, leaving them with little alternative but to head to the emergency department.

This undertreatment is corroborated by another study that examined data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Part D prescriber database between 2013 and 2017, finding that both oncologists and nononcologists prescribed about 21% fewer opioids to Medicare beneficiaries during that time, compared with the period prior to 2013.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that opioid prescribing by palliative care providers increased by 15% over the same period. On a positive note, this suggests the presence of a growing outpatient palliative care workforce. But it may also reflect growing unease among oncologists with the perceived liability for prescribing opioids and a desire to ask other specialists to take on this liability. At the same time, it may reflect the very real and ever-increasing administrative burden associated with prescribing opioids and the fact that busy oncologists may not have time to spend on this aspect of cancer care. Thus, as palliative care clinicians become more visible and numerous in the outpatient arena, oncologists may increasingly ask palliative care clinicians like myself to take this on.

The problem with this is that merely handing off the administrative burden to another clinician doesn’t address the underlying problem. Anecdotal evidence suggests (and my own experiences corroborate) this administrative burden can cause real harm. A survey of 1,000 physicians conducted by the American Medical Association in 2021 found that 93% of respondents reported a delay in patient care due to prior authorization burden and 34% of respondents reported that their patients had suffered a “serious adverse event” due to prior authorization requirements.

The CDC recently announced it will take steps to revise the 2016 opioid prescribing guidelines for chronic pain after hearing from members of the medical community as well as patients living with chronic pain about the harsh, unintended consequences of the guidelines. I can only hope that insurance companies will follow suit, revising their opioid prior authorization requirements to finally come into alignment with the rational, safe use of opioids in patients with advanced cancer. It’s too bad that any improvement in the future will be too late for the millions of patients who have suffered irreversible iatrogenic harms due to delays in achieving adequate pain relief.

Sarah F. D’Ambruoso, NP, is a palliative care nurse practitioner in Santa Monica, Calif.


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