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More Doctors Admit They're Cutting Back on Opioid Prescriptions

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As the opioid crisis unfolds, chronic pain patients have said doctors are increasingly wary of prescribing opioids. Now, a survey of doctors shows just how widespread doctors’ hesitancy to prescribe opioids is.

SERMO, a social network for physicians, asked its 800,000 physicians to answer questions about their opioid prescribing, 3,000 agreed to participate. (BuzzFeed, who partnered with SERMO for the study and reported its findings on Wednesday, said it skewed heavily towards general practitioners.) Seven out of 10 of these doctors said they cut back on prescribing opioids or stopped prescribing them entirely in the last two years. When SERMO conducted the same study in 2016, six out of 10 doctors said they were cutting back.

This year, 69 percent said they had reduced their painkiller prescribing or stopped prescribing opioids entirely. Twelve percent said they had stopped prescribing opioids entirely. That’s a 60 percent and 8 percent increase, respectively, from the 2016 survey.

Among doctors who had cut back, 22 percent said it was because there were “too many hassles and risks involved” and 22 percent said it was because of “improved understanding of the risks of opioids.” Ten percent said they cut back because they were afraid of “getting in trouble” with licensing boards or drug regulators.

Meanwhile, 34 percent of the doctors surveyed said chronic pain patients have been hurt by the reduction in opioid prescriptions.

Doctors aren’t the only ones who have been cutting back on opioid prescriptions. Medicare has limited its opioid supply for recipients and the Drug Enforcement Agency announced it would decrease the number of opioids produced in 2018 by 20 percent. CVS Pharmacy has also limited the opioid prescriptions it will fill.

While policymakers say these moves are a response to the opioid crisis and opioid abuse, people using opioids responsibly for chronic pain often feel caught in the crossfire. Studies have shown between less than 1 percent and 12 percent of people who use opioids abuse them, and in 2016, more deaths were caused by fentanyl than prescribed medication.

Yet, as SERMO’s survey shows, many doctors are still hesitant to prescribe opioids. Chronic pain patients say that risks leaving them without any other options for managing long-term pain for conditions like ankylosing spondylitis and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

Loura Lawrence, a Mighty contributor who uses opioids for her chronic pain, said her medications have been toyed with, reduced and cut off without much input from her. When doctors cut back on prescriptions that are working, it leaves her no longer able to function.

Lawrence said:

I cannot sleep, I cannot eat, I cannot think, I cannot work, I cannot do even little chores, I cannot play with my kids, I cannot visit with family, I cannot run small errands, I cannot exercise, I cannot be in a car more than 10 minutes at a time. I cannot do these things because moving around is so painful, it takes every once of physical energy, mental focus, and willpower just to get showered and dressed. I have done all I can for my back condition and chronic pain. I want to live!

Rachel Burchfield, another Mighty contributor who uses opioids for her chronic pain, said her connective tissue disorder means she metabolizes medications faster and builds up tolerances to medications very quickly. Because of the strict rules and monitoring of opioids, she can no longer get the dosages she needs to last her a month.

While many people think it’s a good idea to cut back on pain prescriptions, and that narcotics and other opioid drugs can be dangerous if you aren’t following instructions, Burchfield said most of these people haven’t lived with severe chronic pain that doesn’t respond to anything else.

“Until you’ve experienced severe, chronic pain, you can’t know how hard it is to get through the days and nights without enough [pain medication] to make you feel like yourself,” she added. “I’m responsible with my care, so why do we have to fight so hard to try to find relief? I wish each doctor and insurance agent could walk a day in my shoes before making things any harder.”

Getty photo by LumineImages

Originally published: May 4, 2018
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