Here’s a letter from doctor with a long exposure to the problem of addiction and pain pills. I get lots of email letters about Dreamland. I’ve put a few up on this blog – always with names and identifying details removed.
I have recognized for many years, at least since the late 1980s, that the chronic use of opioid medications was typically a barrier to recovery. I am a physiatrist, a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, since 1986. We manage patients who have catastrophic injuries: spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, amputations and those with multiple and severe trauma. I also treated many patients who had less severe injuries including strains, sprains and other soft tissue trauma. We often manage patients over many years. When the use of opioids became more frequent, in the late 1980s, I was perplexed. I did my best to manage pain, if at all possible, without the use of chronic opioid therapy. I was perplexed even more so in the mid to late 1990s when Oxycontin came on the scene. Physicians no longer were afraid to prescribe opioids for non-cancer pain and did so seemingly without caution. They were duped. Drug companies and their physician spokesmen duped them.
I grew up and later practiced medicine for many years in New Mexico. New Mexico, as you may know, has always had one of the highest drug overdose rates in the nation. Heroin had been the drug of choice, at least until opioid medications came on the scene. I worked as a house painter’s apprentice in the late 1960s while in college. I worked on one crew that every journeyman painter was an ex-con related to heroin use. I had plenty of opportunity to use heroin but it scared me. My co-workers told me how great it was. One guy, much older than me, made it sound so appealing. “Come over and we will shoot up and listen to jazz.” I never tried it though I had lots of opportunity.
I knew quite well how dangerous heroin was and never believed that opioid medications were any less dangerous. When I started practicing in the late 1980s many of the patients I saw were on opioid medications when I assumed their care. Most of the more seriously injured patients I saw were successfully weaned off opioids. Many of the less seriously injured, especially those with work related injuries, were much more difficult to wean. Some patients of both categories ended up on long term opioids but were closely monitored to determine if they were benefitting from opioids and whether they were abusing them. Escalating doses were typically not allowed.
The work related injury group of patients who generally had much less severe injuries, were routinely on opioid medications when I took over their care. My job as a rehabilitation physician was to get them back to their usual activities including return to work. I found that opioid medications were a barrier to their recovery. Some of my referring physicians believed the standard of care was to treat pain with opioids as long as patients complained of pain. Some patients were never going to stop complaining of pain and the reasons were frequently psychosocial in nature. I never believed the hype from drug companies regarding the safety of opioids. I saw from up close as a young man and as a doctor that they were dangerous and in general not appropriate for long term use in non-cancer pain.
I knew little about Dr. Russell Portenoy at the time of the opioid prescription explosion but I knew plenty about what drug companies were saying about the safety of opioid medications and the unlikelihood for addiction. I now understand Dr. Portenoy’s role in this public health catastrophe. I don’t believe Dr. Portenoy and other drug company marketer’s claims that they are now surprised about the addiction potential and danger of opioids. Intuitively it did not make sense. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are so similar to morphine and heroin both chemically and by their mechanism of action. Why would you believe they are so much safer? Those guys were either just plain dumb and so drunk with drug company money and self promotion that they refused to pay attention to what was happening to patients. I am sure they are not dumb. Dr. Portenoy is a brilliant and charming guy. Just view his video presentations and interviews. He is also a successful academic physician. That is what made him so dangerous. I am just an average doc who has never had a higher academic position than a clinical assistant professor. I have never authored a paper that made it to a medical journal. How could I know more than them and have been so right about the proper role of opioid medications? Why didn’t they? Certainly not because I am smarter.
I think your book was very even handed, maybe a little too much, with Portenoy and the other opioid selling/promoting physicians. I’m telling you they knew better. Their response of “If I knew then what I know now….” just doesn’t cut it. They are responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths and ruined lives. They should not get off the hook. I suspect their narcissism will prevent even one sleepless night for the damage they have done. But they and their benefactors, the drug companies, have created a horrible health crisis that was largely preventable in the United States. It is almost strictly a U.S. problem caused by U.S. physician “thought leaders”, drug companies and misguided bureaucrats.
I applaud your book. Bringing the black tar heroin story into your narrative was great. You connected the dots. I wasn’t aware of that part of the story. Thanks again for your book. It may just impact our legislators and government officials even more so, to focus on rehabilitation not punishment for those young kids who got caught up in a drug problem often caused by misguided or crooked doctors.
The punishment of “pill mill” docs and drug company marketers including their corrupt physician lackeys could never be equal to the suffering they have created. Glad you spotlighted the problem and did it in such a well-researched, entertaining and cogent way. Thank you.