Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Major Figure in Pain Medicine Recants--Partially

Thanks to a post at Health Care Renewal by Dr. Roy Poses:
--I was guided to a recent Wall Street Journal piece by Catan and Perez (subscription required) that addresses an issue I have previously blogged about at some length:

My own take on this issue differs a bit from Dr. Poses' so I refer the reader to the earlier posts in which I state my basic sympathy with the goal of treating chronic pain aggressively, with narcotics if other modalities don't work and if the patient seems a suitable candidate and is carefully monitored.

In taking that position over many years of (former) practice, however, I must admit that I was heavily influenced by the writing of one person, Dr. Russell Portenoy, who became head of pain medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. Dr. Portenoy was an early advocate of much liberalized use of narcotic medications for chronic pain, basically saying that one could take the same lessons learned in treating terminal cancer patients and apply them to the much larger population of adults with chronic non-cancer pain. Traditional physicians cried wolf when hospice first came on the scene, warning that liberal use of opiate drugs would kill cancer patients from depression of their breathing and turn all of them into addicts. When the drugs did neither, some of us concluded that a general "opiophobia" among physicians and nurses might be standing in the way of rational practice more generally. Dr. Portenoy was a leader in applying that logic to chronic pain.

It is therefore painful (no pun intended) for folks like me to read in this article that in a recent interview, Dr. Portenoy freely admitted that the advice he handed out back then was probably wrong-- particularly, that narcotics are much more dangerous and addiction-prone than he made out to be. This generally more  cautious attitude is mirrored in what studies have recently become available on the topic--for example, this study by Dillie and colleagues:
--looking at the association between dosage and reported quality of life in chronic pain, opiate-treated patients and showing that the better quality of life was related to lower and not higher dosages of the medication.

Dr. Poses correctly notes that there was not, when Dr. Portenoy began his campaign, nor is their today, any solid high-quality evidence that narcotics work effectively and safely in treating chronic non-malignant pain. I would simply ask one to consider what it would take to launch a definitive randomized, controlled, double-blind trial to answer this question, and I don't think it's a great surprise that there have been no such studies. This is especially the case since there is very limited NIH support for studies of pain generally.

OK, so all this is very disppointing when it comes to treating chronic pain. The aspect that especially concerns us in this blog is the role of conflicts of interest and industry funding. The WSJ article makes clear that Portenoy accepted huge sums of cash from the drug companies that make opiates, especially the problem-prone OxyContin manufactured by Purdue Pharma, the now-infamous "hillbilly heroin." The old excuse we heard from the pain docs and pain associations is that they had no choice but to accept industry money if they wanted to get any research done at all, given the dearth of federal funds. This article (and others in the previous posts) show that it was not just a matter of research funds; many of these docs became high-rolling "key opinion leaders" feathering their own nests with dollars not intended for research at all. And as was usually the case back then, articles they wrote for medical journals, or guidelines they authored for various national organizations, seldom if ever disclosed those conflicts.

Here is where Dr. Portnenoy's mea culpa hardly extends far enough. He seems to have learned that the safety profile of opiates is not as rosy as he made it out to be 10 and 20 years ago. But he does not seem to have gained any perspective on the dangers of being bribed by industry. He told the interviewer, "My viewpoint is that I can have those [financial] relationships, they would benefit my educational mission, they benefit my research mission, and to some extent, they can benefit my own pocketbook, without producing in me any tendency to engage in undue influence or misinformation."

Well, since Dr. Portenoy began his career, new evidence has emerged about the efficacy and safety of narcotics in chronic pain. New evidence has also emerged about the degree to which docs are influenced by Pharma money, even if they deny it. Dr. Portenoy seriously needs a refresher course in the latter body of evidence, just as he seems to have had some helpful re-education regarding the first.

Catan T, Perez E. "A Pain-Drug Champion Has Second Thoughts." Wall Street Journal, Dec. 15, 2012, P. A1.


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