hipaa, health insurance, and health information

Blogging from A to Z, my theme is happy things. Letter H is for HIPAA and health insurance and health information.

H is for hipaa: the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, from 1996. I’ve been thinking about HIPAA and I have a question: if the patient handouts are supposed to be written at the fifth grade reading level for patients, why doesn’t Congress have to write laws at the fifth grade reading level?

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, right? Everyone in the US is supposed to follow the laws. Have you read them? I am supposed to follow HIPAA, right? I am supposed to follow the Affordable Care Act, (also nicknamed ObamaCare). It is 3600 pages long. It is written by Congress and attorneys.

What about health insurance? Have you read your health insurance policy? It’s a contract. If multiple US citizens have difficulty reading, why isn’t health insurance written at a fifth grade level?

CMS too and triwest and medicaid. I do not have time as a physician to learn the language of their websites.  I run my own small practice. It is infuriating to try to read, understand and follow medicare, medicaid and Veterans Choice rules and they change every year. We ask why health care costs so much, and then there are over 800 different insurance companies, each with multiple insurance plans, and more and more people are hired to try to navigate and understand the rules. It’s ridiculous. We need a single payer system so there is ONE set of rules. Everybody in, nobody out.

At the UW Telepain telemedicine, I said that I show chronic pain patients the link to the Washington State Law about opioids and pain medicine.

One of the faculty said, “Patients can’t understand that.”

I said, “Well, I’m supposed to follow that law and I am not an attorney. ”

My patients are all smart in something. Some of them can’t read well. I have had two recently that I recognized a reading issue in the clinic room when I gave them a survey tool to fill out. I promptly said, “Let’s do this together.” I read them the questions and the answers. They are not stupid, but I am not sure that their reading skills were up to the form.

I am not using the American Academy of Family Practice patient handouts much because I think they are too dumb. I use the Mayo Clinic much more. I direct patients to the CDC, to NIH, to the Mayo Clinic website. Sometimes my patients may not be able to read at that level, but I think everyone appreciates being treated with respect. I am also happy to go over and explain more about a topic. I also warn them that there are loads of crappy medical sites and pseudo scientific sites and misinformation on the internet. If they want to look something up, I want them on a decent site.

Now how are these happy things to think about? It makes me happy to question my own behavior and my own assumptions. It makes me wonder how our country can insist that medical information has to be at a fifth grade level but lets Congress write laws that I find nearly unreadable.

Now I am warning my patients that a federal law may go into effect in January 2019, about opioids, and that it will be different and override the state law. Change will keep coming.

H

The photograph is from the beach last night: brant. What would the flock think about our health insurance? 

 

opioids international

The US is not the only opioid crisis.

Reblogging:

https://www.groundup.org.za/article/woman-battles-escape-whoonga-park/

Living in the hell of Whoonga Park

Murder, rape, crime, homelessness, abuse by police … daily life for whoonga users

Photo of a woman holding a beaded South African flag
Nobuhle Khuzwayo doing bead work during life skills training at the Denis Hurley Centre. Photo: Nomfundo Xolo
By

“Siqalo used to be the most promising child in our house … the last born. He got the best of everything. We took him to better schools than we did his younger sister and brother. He did well for the better half of high school.Then he met up with the wrong friends, and never even got to matric,” Fanele Ngcobo tells GroundUp about his son.

Siqalo is 22. He has been a whoonga user since 2015. By 10am, he has already smoked his second fix. Without the drug he struggles to function. Withdrawal effects – which people refer to as “arosta” – include stomach cramps, vomiting, and extreme anxiety.

Whoonga is a mixture of marijuana and heroin and rumoured to contain anti-retrovirals, detergents and even rat poison. Active addiction has spread in KwaZulu-Natal townships such as KwaMashu and iNanda. Hundreds of people now live in Durban’s ‘Whoonga Park’,

Siqalo was a keen soccer player, says his mother, Sizakele. Now his worn, black soccer shoes peek out from under the bed in his old room at home in iNanda, Durban.

“He always went for practice with his friends at the local playground. But after a while, soccer wasn’t the only thing he and his friends were playing with; he was also experimenting with dangerous drugs,” she says.

Siqalo lives in so-called Whoonga Park, under a bridge next to the Berea railway lines in Durban. The park has become a den for whoonga users. They have bright beach umbrellas to protect them from the heat and black plastic bags for shelter. The activities under the bridge are in plain view. People trade and smoke. In the afternoons and at night, many take to the city streets to hustle for food and the money they need to buy their fix.

“There are no beds here. Even if you can get a blanket or sheet to sleep in, it doesn’t last a week. The police will burn it,” says Siqalo. “So it’s easier just to use cardboard and plastic as it is easy to find in the streets. Although I miss home, I cannot go back home like this. I need to be clean. My family doesn’t trust me around the house and for good reason because I’ve stolen their money and appliances too many times. I tried to be clean when they first fetched me, but arosta is too painful – nobody can understand. But I still want to go home.”

Cooked meals, showers and clean clothes

Nobuhle Khuzwayo from eMpangeni, KwaZulu-Natal, is one of those trying to get off whoonga. She attends the iSiphephelo Centre housed at the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban, where she gets cooked meals and clean clothes three times a week. For a few hours she is free of whoonga.

Co-founder of the centre Sihle Ndima says it is a place of safety for young girls and women living on the streets of Durban. It offers meals, counselling, clean clothes and showers.

“Many of them return back to the streets soon after classes, and the work we do seems like failure, because in the end they go back to using whoonga,” says Ndima. “We work with a rehabilitation centre in Newlands East, Durban, and they offer free help.”

Khuzwayo, who is 30, came to Durban seeking a job in 2014, but after numerous failed attempts, she was left homeless and desperate.

“The shoe factory I was working for closed down after a month. Thereafter it was difficult to get employment. I had been staying at the Dalton hostel with some friends, who later introduced me to smoking. They would tell me it was marijuana, but after becoming a frequent smoker … I would get headaches, pains and stomach cramps when I hadn’t smoked. I just could not cope without it. When I confronted them, they told me it was in fact whoonga. I was already deeply hooked,” says Khuzwayo.

She could no longer live at the hostel. She moved to Whoonga Park. To get money she would have to resort to sex work, crime or selling cigarettes. She found a boyfriend who sold cigarettes at taxi ranks to help get them food and the R30 a day they needed to buy whoonga.

“To survive on the streets, I got myself a boyfriend because you can’t survive a day alone under the bridge as a woman. There are men known as amaBhariya, who claim to own the spots in Whoonga Park. They do not smoke or deal the drug; they do not speak local languages or even English. They are ruthless. They rape and kill women under the bridge and make sure the park functions the way it does. They wear blue workmen’s clothes and hats and use the underground drains to move around. So if you don’t have a man to protect you, they will always take advantage of you,” says Khuzwayo.

Merchants outside the park sell whoonga for R30. “They are usually in the streets or in nearby flats but not many sell whoonga under the bridge,” she says.

Hundreds now live in Whoonga Park beside the railway lines in Berea, Durban. Photo: Nomfundo Xolo

Khuzwayo has now moved to a local shelter, paying R20 a night. Her closest friend had TB and when she died it was a turning point.

“I am tired of this life. I am determined to change. I don’t want to die a senseless death without dignity,” she says.

She is now a part-time cleaner at iSiphephelo. After attending all counselling and life skills classes she will qualify for rehab. “After rehab, I am going to go back home and stay with my sister in eMpangeni. You cannot stay away from whoonga in the city,” says Khuzwayo.

Siqalo and Khuzwayo say whoonga users are known as amaPhara. “Because we look like zombies. We’re dead people walking. We sleep standing. We stab you for your phone and sell it for a fix. Plastic and rubble is our shelter, faeces and rubbish are everywhere, and we run from police who destroy our things and chase us away every week. But we always come back. We can’t survive anywhere else,” says Siqalo.

Khuzwayo says she has seen people high on whoonga killed by trains.

“You can’t save them, because it’s like the railway shocks you, and you’re unable to move … seeing the train come at you but unable to run. I’ve seen some getting crushed in half and some losing their limbs. Even a security guard, who was chasing us one time, got stuck and the train crushed his foot.”

“One way or the other, you’re lucky to survive under the bridge.”

reblogged from: https://www.groundup.org.za/article/woman-battles-escape-whoonga-park/

Unarmored

I have been working with orthopedic massage for three years. My sister died in 2012 and my father 14 months later, in 2013. My father’s will was from 1979. My maternal family grieved via five years of lawsuits. I lost my sister, my father, and my maternal family. For good, as the song says.

I showed up for a massage in 2014. The ortho massage person said, “You are locked in an armor suit. Toes holding on to the floor, knees locked, head and shoulders forward, a fight or flight defensive posture.” I lift my toes up and say, “My toes aren’t clenched.” But they were.

For the next week I was to walk around, or attempt to walk around, with my toes off the floor. I practice: toes up, knees bent, lift foot, gently touch heel ahead, then shift weight forward, weight even on great and little metatarsal, toes are not to grab the floor, lift the trailing foot and repeat. I am furious that I have to relearn how to walk. HOW TO LET GO OF THE ARMOR SUIT?

I go once a month, now. I went weekly for a long time, then biweekly. Pieces of armor would drop off in the massage, but I would armor back up at work. Posture, posture, posture, breathe, don’t tighten those muscles up, check in with toes and with abdominal muscles…

Yesterday I go. We talk. It’s been a really weird month and I don’t know why. Letting go of all sorts of things and people and stuff. My pile of stuff to get rid of, clothes, books, mugs, art, is getting larger. And I was very grumpy the day before the massage. I thought, well, it’s been a dark February, I hate taking pills, maybe I need some sun, I mean, vitamin D.

But at the massage: a huge piece of armor, locked muscles in my lower back and hips, is gone. It feels weird. I didn’t know it was gone. Certain movements feel entirely unfamiliar, because I am used to moving the muscles as a locked group. My brain attempts to tell individual muscles to move and then there is a pause… as the brain and muscle negotiate unfamiliar territory. Medial gluteus medius… moving that feels so odd and unfamiliar.

Ortho massage says, “Usually when I ask you to move muscles, you are ON or OFF. FULL STRENGTH or no response. This is all new: modulation. Gentle.”

It feels so strange..

He knows how I feel. He says, “I felt so unbalanced as my armor dropped off. As if it dropped off bits at a time, a piece on the right side and suddenly I don’t know how to move because it’s all different. ”

Yes, that is what I am feeling. Unmoored. Light. There is less gravity. Gentle. Surprised. Less grumpy afterwards: I am so surprised, I had rather given up that I would EVER drop ANY of the armor suit. Pleased and a bit shyly proud. And deeply deeply grateful…. to my ortho massage person and to many others: friends, books, kind strangers, my patients, my colleagues (that is, the ones who have been kind. There are quite a few who were not. Let them go.) and the parts of my family that I keep… the ones whose actions DO mean they love me.

And my significant other says that I’ve seemed more peaceful this month. I check. I do feel more peaceful, which is so odd when I started the week feeling peculiar and unmoored and as if something was wrong. Something wasn’t wrong, I just had not even realized that I dropped a huge piece of invisible armor. The night before the massage I went to a dinner. Because of the deaths and lawsuits, I had very little social life for many years. A decade, really. After the dinner I thought, that was odd. I am not who I was ten years ago. I am not sure who I am in a social setting. I am surprised to be invited to a dinner. And I let the old me go: it’s ok. I will find out who I am after a decade as a hermit, a hermit due to circumstances, not by choice nor under my control. I let it all go: and I think that is the moment that piece of armor finally let go.

For Good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQJaZO2nfGg

Update on PTSD 2017: hope!

I have just spent a week in San Antonio, Texas at the AAFP FMX: American Academy of Family Physicians Family Medicine Experience.

Whew. Long acronym.

However, I attended two programs on PTSD. One was a three hour offsite one put on by the U. of Texas Health Sciences Department of Family Medicine. The other was a one hour program about active duty military and PTSD.

The biggest message for me is HOPE. Hope for treatment, hope for diagnosis, hope for destigmatization, hope for remission. I am not sure if we should call it a “cure”. Once a diabetic, always a diabetic, even if you lose 100 pounds.

In medical school 1989-1993 I learned that PTSD existed but that was about it. There was no discussion of medicines, treatment, diagnosis or cure.

Ditto residency. I learned much more about psychiatry reading about addiction and alcoholism and Claudia Black’s books then I did in residency.

Fast forward to 2010, when I opened my own clinic. I worked as a temp doc at Madigan Army Hospital for three months.

The military was aggressively pursuing treatment and diagnosis of depression, anxiety, PTSD and traumatic brain injury. I worked in the walk in clinic from 6:30 to 8:00 four days a week. Every walk in had to fill out a screen for depression. They were trying to stem the suicides, the damage, the return to civilian life problems and addiction too. They were embedding a behavioral health specialist in every section of the military. I was amazed at how hard the military was working on behavioral health.

In 2010 I took the buprenorphine course, which is really a crash course in addiction medicine, at the University of Washington Med School. I took it because it was free (I had just opened a clinic) and I thought we were as a nation prescribing WAY too many damned opioids. Yes! I found my tribe!

This gave me a second DEA number, to prescribe buprenorphine for opiate overuse, but also hooked me up with the University of Washington Telemedicine. I presented about 30 opiate overuse problem patients (anonymously, there is a form) to the team via telemedicine over the next year. The team includes a pain specialist, addiction specialist, psychiatrist and physiatrist. They do a 30 minute teaching session and then discuss 1-2 cases. They often do not agree with each other. They reach consensus and fax recommendations to me. The Friday addiction one was shut down and now I present to the Wednesday chronic pain one.

But, you say, PTSD? Well, chronic pain patients and opiate overuse patients have a very high rate of comorbid psychiatric diagnoses. It’s often hard to sort out. Are they self medicating because they have been traumatized or were they addicted first and then are depressed/traumatized and anxious? And what do you treat first?

There was an ADHD program at this conference that said we should deal with the ADHD first. One of the PTSD courses said deal with the PTSD first. The thing is, you really have to address BOTH AT ONCE.

Tools? PHQ-9, GAD-7, PCLC and there is an ADHD one too. These are short screening tools. I don’t diagnose with them. I use them to help guide therapy along with the invaluable urine drug screen. Love your patients but verify. That is, the chronic pain patient and the addiction patient tell me the same thing: but one is lying. I don’t take it personally because they are lying to themselves. Also, studies have shown that many patients lie, about their hypertension medicine or whatever. If they have to choose between food and medicine…. I think food may come first.

The San Antonio program has a behavioral health person embedded in their clinic (like a diamond) and if a PTSD screen is positive, the doctor or provider can walk them over and introduce them and get them set up. This is more likely to get the person to follow up, because there is still stigma and confusion for ALL mental health diagnoses and people often won’t call the counselor or psychologist or god forbid, psychiatrist.

They have a protocol for a short term four week treatment. Four weeks? You can’t treat PTSD in four weeks! Well, sometimes you can. But if you are making no progress, the person is referred on if they will go. I have the handouts. I do not have an embedded behavioral health person. I wish I did. I am thinking of setting a trap for one or luring them in to my clinic somehow, or asking if the AAFP would have one as a door prize next year, but…. meanwhile, I may do a trial of DIY. No! you say, you are not a shrink! Well, half of family medicine is actually sneaky behavioral health and I have the advantage of being set up to have more time with patients. Time being key. Also I have seven years of work with the telemedicine and access to that psychiatrist. Invaluable.

So what is the most common cause of civilian PTSD? Motor vehicle accidents. I didn’t know that. I would have said assault/rape. But no, it’s MVAs. Assault and rape are up there though, with a much higher PTSD rate if it is someone the victim knows or thought loved them. Rates in the US general population is currently listed at 1%, but at 12% of patients in primary care clinics. What? One in ten? Yes, because they show up with all sorts of chronic physical symptoms.

Re the military, it’s about the same. BUT noncombatant is 5%. High intensity combat has a PTSD risk of 25%, which is huge. One in four. Not a happy thing. In 2004 less then half the military personnel who needed care received it. PTSD needs to be destigmatized, prevented, treated compassionately and cured.

The risk of suicidality: 20% of PTSD people per year attempt. One in five.

Men tend to have more aggressiveness, women more depression.

Back to that PCLC. A score of over 33 is positive, over 55 is severe. There is sub threshold PTSD and it does carry a suicide risk as well. In treatment, a score drop of 10 is great, 5-10 is good and under 5, augment the treatment. Remember, the PCLC is a screening tool, not a diagnosis. I often ask people to fill out the PCLC, the GAD7 and the PHQ9 to see which is highest, to help guide me with medicines or therapy. If I need a formal diagnostic label, off to psychiatry or one of my PhD psychologists or neuropsych testing. Meanwhile, I am happy to use an adjustment disorder label if I need a label. If the patient is a veteran and says he or she has PTSD, ok, will use that.

Untreated PTSD, the rate of remission is one third at a year, the average remission is 64 months.

Treated PTSD, the rate of remission is one half at a year, and the average duration is 36 months. So treatment is not perfect by any means.

Pharmacology: FDA approved medicines include paroxetine and fluoxetine, and both venlafaxine and one other SSRI help.

Benzodiazepines make it worse! Do not use them! They work at the same receptor as alcohol, remember? So alcohol makes it worse too. There is no evidence for marijuana, but marijuana increases anxiety disorders: so no, we think it’s a bad idea. Those evil sleep medicines, for “short term use” (2 weeks and 6 weeks), ambien and sonata, they are related to benzos so I would extrapolate to them, don’t use them, bad.

Prazosin helps with sleep for some people. It lowers blood pressure and helps with enlarged prostates, so the sleep thing is off label and don’t stop it suddenly or the person could get rebound hypertension (risk for stroke and heart attack). I have a Vietnam veteran who says he has not slept so well since before Vietnam.

Part of the treatment for the PTSD folks at the U. of Texas Medical Center is again, destigmatization, normalization, education, awareness and treatment tools.

Hooray for hope for PTSD and for more tools to work with to help people!

disaster and withdrawal

When I watch the disaster news, what I think about is withdrawal.

Everyone who is on a substance that causes dependence or addiction is withdrawing.

They don’t seem to ever discuss that, but think…. if you are in Houston or Florida when everything floods, are your cigarettes dry? I don’t think so. And put multiple people in close contact in a shelter, with many withdrawing… I am not surprised that tempers flare.

Let’s look at numbers.

Tobacco: in 2013, 21.3% of the US population age 12 and older, smokes tobacco. Disasters are a reason to quit. It’s hard enough to quit tobacco, but imagine going cold turkey if we have our Pacific Northwest really massive earthquake. Quit smoking now, don’t wait for a disaster. And think about being in a stadium with one in five of the people over age 12 withdrawing from tobacco. Is that fun?

Alcohol: “In 2013, 30.2 percent of men and 16.0 percent of women 12 and older reported binge drinking in the past month. And 9.5 percent of men and 3.3 percent of women reported heavy alcohol use.” Ok, that’s rather vague. If you have a drink or two after work every day or with dinner, will you notice the lack? Yes, I think so, but maybe only 10% of the adults are really going into alcohol withdrawal. That’s a conservative estimate. 30% are probably grumpy.

Illicit drugs: 4-8% of the 40-70 year olds used something in the past month. Are they addicted? Well, some are. And the 18-15 year olds are the most active, around 20%. Methamphetamines, cocaine, crack, crank, heroin, eeee-yuk.

Prescription drugs: “More than half of new illicit drug users begin with marijuana. Next most common are prescription pain relievers, followed by inhalants (which is most common among younger teens).” So let’s see, what percentage of the population is on prescribed opioids, benzodiazepines and barbituates? Ooooo, 1/3 of the US population has been prescribed opioids (2). Chronic opioids are prescribed to 3-4% of the US population, but of course, that is the prescribed chronic pain ones, not the illicit ones. Now, those can have a withdrawal. Alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal are the most dangerous for the patient, but in opioid withdrawal the pain receptors go absolutely crazy, like a volcano blowing up. And the tweakers withdrawing from methamphetamines. The sleep medicines like sonata and ambien avoid the issue of whether they are addictive by saying they are for “short term use” — 6 weeks for the former and 2 weeks for the latter, but some people have been on them for years. And marijuana daily, I have seen great difficulty with anxiety and sleep when people are trying to quit.

Marijuana: 7.5% of the population over age 12. How many of those are addicted? I see varying numbers, ranging from 10% to 50%. If you use marijuana regularly, check. Stop it for a week. See if there is a problem. I’d try it before a disaster, because it would add to the stress during….

Caffeine: Ok, I would withdraw from caffeine. 90% of US people are addicted to caffeine. I get a massive headache for 24 hours and then I am ok. I have gone off it more than once….

With ADHD medicines for children, a “drug holiday” is sometimes recommended. If you are regularly using any potentially addictive substance, try a “drug holiday” of your own.

And I think it’s the best motivator ever to quit smoking. Friday I had a couple of dedicated smokers and when I talked about flooded cigarretes, they blanched. Quit now, before you quit in circumstances…

And prayers for everyone in the disaster areas.

1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/nationwide-trends
2. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/more-than-one-third-americans-prescribed-opioids-in-2015/
3. https://www.cnbc.com/2016/04/27/americans-consume-almost-all-of-the-global-opioid-supply.html  Hey, 80% of the world opioid supply is eaten by the US population! Why are US citizens in so much pain? Or are we under the impression that we shouldn’t have to feel pain and by gosh, we can afford the drugs….
4. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra1507771#t=article Opioid Abuse in Chronic Pain — Misconceptions and Mitigation Strategies.

So WHY doesn’t the news talk about this? Because the cigarette and alcohol and prescription drug companies would yank the advertising?

Vital signs II

Pain is not a vital sign anymore, as I described in yesterday’s post. I wrote this poem in 2006, about pain  being the fifth vital sign. I disagreed.

Vital signs II

Pain
Is now a vital sign
On a scale of 1:10
What is your pain?
The nurses document
Every shift

Why isn’t joy
a vital sign?

In the hospital
we do see joy

and pain

I want feeling cared for
to be a vital sign

My initial thought
is that it isn’t
because we can’t treat it

But that isn’t true

I have been brainwashed

We can’t treat it
with drugs

We measure pain
and are told to treat it
helpful pamphlets
sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies
have articles
from experts

Pain is under treated
by primary care
in the hospital
and there are all
these helpful medicines

I find
in my practice
that much of the pain
I see
cannot be treated
with narcotics
and responds better
to my ear

To have someone
really listen
and be curious
and be present
when the person
speaks

If feeling cared for
were a vital sign
imagine

Some people
I think
have almost never felt cared for
in their lives

They might say
I feel cared for 2 on a scale of 10

And what could the nurses do?

No pills to fix the problem

But perhaps
if that question
were followed by another

Is there anything we can do
to make you feel more cared for?

I wonder
if asking the question
is all we need

first draft 5/20/06

I took the photograph Friday afternoon from the beach: two fronts were meeting. What is that like in the sky? Do they fight or welcome each other?

Pain as a vital sign

A recent article in the Family Practice News says that a survey of 225 physicians reveals that 33% of them think that the opioid crisis in the US is caused by over prescribing opioids. 24% said aggressive patient drug seeking and 18% said it is due to drug dealers. How quickly things change.

In 1996 pain was declared the fifth vital sign, after temperature,  pulse (heart rate), respiration rate and blood pressure. I disagreed with it because it focused on pain, by telling the nurses in the hospital and the outpatient providers to always to ask about pain. I thought it would be better to focus on level of comfort than pain. I thought we were using opioids far too freely and I thought that patients were getting addicted. The pain specialists said that we had to treat pain, and we were given very few tools other than opioids. Primary care providers were told that they could be sued for too much or too little pain medicine.

I also disagreed with it because pain is NOT a vital sign. That is, the level of pain does not correlate with illness. If a person has a high fever of 104 I am sure they are sick, a fast or very slow heart rate, a blood pressure too high or two low, they are breathing too fast: these are vital signs. They often correlate to illness and help us decide if this is outpatient, urgent or emergent. But pain does not. A chronic pain patient may have a pain level of 8/10 and yet not be an emergency or in a life-threatening state at all. That does not mean that they are lying or that we don’t wish to help with pain.

In June, 2016, the American Medical Association recommended dropping pain as a vital sign. https://www.painnewsnetwork.org/stories/2016/6/16/ama-drops-pain-as-vital-sign. The Joint Commission for Hospital Accreditation dropped pain as a vital sign in August, 2016. https://www.jointcommission.org/joint_commission_statement_on_pain_management/

Why? Not only were people getting addicted to opiates, but they were and are dying of unintentional overdoses: sedation from opiates with alcohol, with anxiety medicines such as benzodiazepines, with soma, with sleep medicines such as ambien and zolpidem. If the person is sedated enough, they stop breathing and die. The CDC declared an epidemic of unintentional overdoses in 2012: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6101a3.htm and said that more US citizens were dying of prescription medicines taken as instructed then from motor vehicle accidents and guns and illegal drugs.

So the poem below and a second poem I will post tomorrow reflect how I thought about pain as a vital sign. It is not a vital sign, because a high pain level does not tell me if the person is critically ill and may die. It does not correlate. Pain matters and we want to treat it, but the first responsibility is “do not harm”. Letting people get addicted and killing some is harm.

Also, opioids have limited effectiveness and high risk for chronic pain. I have worked with  The University of Washington Pain and Addiction Clinic since 2010 via telemedicine. They say that average improvement of chronic pain with opioids is about 30%. Higher and higher doses do not help and increase the risk of overdose and death. And the risk of addiction.

I think of pain as information. Studies of fibromyalgia patients with functional MRI of the brain show that they are not lying about their pain. In a study normal and fibromyalgia patients were given the same pain stimulus on the hand. The normal patients said that they felt 3-4/10 pain. The fibromyalgia patients felt 7-8/10 pain with the same stimulus and the pain centers lit up correspondingly more in their brains. So they are not lying.

Why would opioids only lower chronic pain about 30% even with higher doses? The brain considers pain important information. We need to snatch our finger away from a flame, stop if we smash our toe, deal with a broken bone. I think of opioids like noise cancelling headphones. Say you are listening to music. You put on headphones/take round the clock opioids. Your brain automatically turns up the gain: the music volume or the pain sensors. Now it hurts again. You take more. The brain turns up the gain. Now: take the noise cancelling headphones off. The music/pain is too loud and it hurts! With music we can turn it down, but the brain cannot adjust the gain for pain quickly.

We do not understand the shift from acute pain to chronic pain, yet. The shift is in the brain. I think that we are too quick to mask and block pain rather than use the information. Now the recommendations for opioids are to only use them for 3-5 days for acute pain and injury. For years I have said with any opioid prescription: try not to take them around the clock and try to decrease the use as soon as possible. Some people get addicted. Be careful.

If we don’t hand people a pill for pain, what can we do? There are more and more therapies. Jon Kabot Zinn’s 30 years of studying mindfulness meditation is very important. His chronic pain classes reduce pain by an average of 50%: better than opiates. Pain and stress hormones drop by 50% in a study of a one hour massage. Massage, physical therapy, chiropracty and acupuncture: different people respond to different modalities. Above all, reassuring people that the level of pain in chronic pain does not correlate to the level of illness or ongoing damage. And pain is composed of at least three parts: the sharp nocioceptive pain, nerve pain (neuropathic) and emotional pain. We must address the emotional part too. We have no tool at this time to sort the pain into the three categories. My rule is that I always address all three. That does not mean every person needs a counselor or psychiatrist. It means that we must have time to discuss stress and discuss life events and check in about coping.

In the survey of 225 providers, 50% estimated that they prescribe opioids to fewer than 10% of their patients. 38% said less than half. 12% estimated that they prescribe opioids to more than half their patients. The survey included US primary care, emergency department and pain management physicians.

Handing people a pill is quicker. But we can do better and primary care must have the time to really help people with pain.

Vital Signs I

In the hospital now
I am told we have a new
Vital sign
Like blood pressure and pulse
We are to measure
Pain
And always treat it

Sometimes I wonder

Mr. X is in the ICU
I tell his family
He may die

On a scale of one to ten
What is his wife’s pain?
His daughter’s
We are not treating them
Only Mr. X

We try to suppress pain
Signals from our nerves
Physical pain is easier

I think of our great forests
We suppressed fire

And that was wrong
If fire is suppressed
Undergrowth builds up
Fuel levels rise
Fire comes
Rages out of control
All is destroyed

If fires burn
More naturally
More regularly
What is left?

At first it looks desolate
The tall trees are burnt
Around their bases
But they live
Adapted to the fire
Majestic pines
Revealed
Would our values were as clear

Some pines
Seeds
Pinecones
Will only germinate
In fire
When the undergrowth
Is cleared
Conditions are right
For new growth

Perhaps pain is our fire
Grief is our fire

If we block pain
Where does it go?
Does the fuel build?

I wonder if the tall pines
Fear fire
Would they avoid it
If they could

Perhaps suppression
Is not the answer

Perhaps we can change
Remain present
Acknowledge pain
As normal
As joy

Perhaps if I
Step into the fire
I can remain
Present
For you

And you will be
Less alone
Less afraid

I open my doors

Let the fire burn

poem written before 2009

CDC guidelines for treating chronic pain: https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/pdf/guidelines_factsheet-a.pdf