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Columnist: Remember chronic pain patients when ramping up anti-opioid campaigns

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Remember chronic pain patients when ramping up anti-opioid campaigns

We can all agree that we have an opioid problem in the state and the nation, but can we be sensible about solutions?

Recently Dr. Richard Larson, executive vice chancellor of the UNM Health Sciences Center, recommended government-regulated restrictions on prescribing. In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, he argued that “without strict government regulation, it won’t be solved.” His prescription? A three-day limit on outpatient prescriptions for acute pain and no opioids for adolescents.

Do we really want a distant bureaucrat overruling the judgment of our doctors?

The following week, the New Mexico Medical Board revoked the license of Dr. Walter Seidel Jr., forcing him to close his family practice in Ruidoso. The board took issue with the way he prescribed controlled substances and said he refused to cooperate with the board’s investigation. They declared him a danger to the public.

Maybe the board had good reason to end Seidel’s practice – I don’t know the details of the investigation – but his comment to the Albuquerque Journal was one I’ve heard before: “Look at all the patients in New Mexico who have chronic pain and are not being treated appropriately by their doctors because those physicians are afraid of the medical board.”

That brings us to the people with chronic pain.

If you break your leg. It will hurt like crazy for a brief period, and you may want some short-term pain relief. However, if you’re in a car crash, and your leg is crushed, it could hurt severely for the rest of your life. If you want to have a life, you may need strong, long-term relief in the form of opioids.

Woven into the furor over the “opioid epidemic” is the occasional plea from chronic pain sufferers like the woman who wrote a letter to the editor saying she needs relief for severe arthritis in her back and hands and complications from joint replacements but can’t take NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aspirin and the like) because of an ulcer. She wrote, “Please tell me what a person in pain is supposed to do for pain remedy?”

Between 2000 and 2008 I covered the ordeal of a conscientious pain doctor and her patients. Two observations that trouble me to this day were the helplessness of chronic pain patients, who have nobody to speak for them, and the railroading of pain doctors by the medical board and the federal government.

These patients had a variety of conditions. One had survived a plane crash, others had conditions like diabetes or arthritis or scoliosis, and some had complications from cancer treatment. Theirs were lives of overwhelming pain. If they sought relief, they were treated like drug seekers or hypochondriacs. If they were very, very lucky, they found a doctor who listened to them and prescribed the medication that returned them to a more normal life.

The only person besides their persecuted doctor to take them seriously was Sioban Reynolds, founder of the Pain Relief Network. Because she advocated for doctors and pain patients, the Drug Enforcement Agency and prosecutors hounded and ultimately bankrupted her. She died in a plane crash in 2012.

Ten years later, here we are again. Doctors are still afraid of the medical board. Dr. Robert Gardner, of Rio Rancho, wrote recently: “The collateral damage of the opioid crisis is irresponsible, inexcusable, inhuman and dangerous medical practices toward people with true chronic pain.” Last week the governor and the state Department of Health announced a more reasonable path – a campaign called “There Is Another Way,” to educate patients and caregivers about safer options and alternative strategies.

Armed with knowledge, more people, like a former co-worker facing a medical procedure can use their heads instead of relying on regulators to just say no.

Sherry Robinson is a New Mexico News Services columnist. She can be reached at robinson@nmia.com .

Burkett Shaw
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