Dealing With Suffering Patients And The New Painkiller Rules

By Annie Ropeik
Guest Contributor

Imagine you’re a doctor facing a patient who has tried a host of different medications to treat his severe back pain. “Doctor,” he tells you, “nothing is working and I’m still in agony. I can’t work. I can’t sleep. You have to help me.”

Among the few options left to you is an opioid painkiller, such as morphine. You want to help your patient, but you’re caught in a dilemma: Opioids are not right for everyone, and they run the risk of addiction. But if you don’t prescribe them and your patient really needs them, he’ll suffer.

Dr. Dan Alford, Boston University School of Medicine

Finding the right alternative, or deciding if morphine is the right choice, can be tricky. You didn’t get enough training on the topic in medical school. And if you do prescribe the morphine, time-consuming paperwork (with added potential for error) now awaits you, under new insurance regulations that just came into effect this week.

This type of scenario concerns Dr. Dan Alford. He teaches at Boston University School of Medicine and directs the state program that trains doctors in how to safely handle the complexities of prescribing painkillers.

Opioid painkillers such as morphine, codeine, methadone and oxycodone are a complicated family of drugs that pose a serious addiction risk for many people. The state’s largest insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts is aiming to curb those risks with new regulations that tighten control on access to these drugs. The rules, which took effect Sunday, encourage patients to seek alternatives before asking for opioids, and, in theory, make it harder for doctors to overprescribe the drugs.

The rules aim to reduce addiction, but Alford and many of his colleagues are concerned that the blanket changes may create another risk: under-medication. With more hoops to jump through, he said, many patients who are truly in need of prescriptions may not be able to get them. At the same time, doctors wading through paperwork may be more likely to slip up or prescribe the wrong thing just to avoid bureaucracy.

So Alford, who practices at Boston Medical Center, is spearheading an effort to train doctors and their staff in how to deal with the new regulations. But he’s quick to note that this isn’t about simply making the drugs more freely available. Rather, it’s an effort to recognize how complex these opioids are, make sure patients understand the alternatives and, if necessary, ensure patients who do need opioids are able to get them.

“To actually regulate the practice of medicine by creating authorizations and other laws…insurance companies making those statements, it makes it harder to practice medicine,” Alford said in a recent telephone interview. “I certainly understand their intentions, i just feel like the unintended consequences aren’t being appreciated.”

Alford’s training program aims to help doctors understand how to approach scenarios he said they don’t come across in medical school — situations involving patients who say they’ve tried every other option, nothing’s worked and they’re suffering, or patients who want to transfer a prescription from another state where the regulations are different.

“Those are common scenarios and the person who’s writing the script is not well trained to do it, but they can’t put it off,” Alford said.

Alford described the tenets of the training program in a recent essay:

Communication between doctor and patient is key. The conversation is complicated and
uncomfortable when a clinician is convinced the patient is addicted, while the patient is sure their
terrible pain only needs higher opioid doses. How to have these conversations, and make the
appropriate determination about medication, is not taught in medical school.

Physicians who are experts in pain management have developed guidelines for safe opioid prescribing. These include such clinical tools as requiring patients to sign pain treatment agreements that outline opioid medication benefits and risks. Drug testing and pill counts are recommended to ensure that patients are taking the medication and not giving it to friends and family or selling it. Physicians can use an on-line state prescription monitoring program to monitor patients’ prescription history and identify those who are “doctor shopping” — getting opioids from different physicians.

The program puts a big emphasis on covering all the appropriate bases when it comes to prescribing; Alford said doctors can often end up writing prescriptions without having the appropriate conversations with the patients, concerning risks and benefits or alternatives.

“Nowhere else in medicine is there an area where you’re being asked something you’re really not trained to do when there are so many unappreciated consequences to do it,” he said. And added bureaucracy, he said, will only hinder the process more. “It’s not a big deal to write this one authorization, but when you add it on to everyone else…you’ve got a mailbox full of forms that need to be filled out for more and more things,” he said.

That added bureaucracy, he said, makes medication more expensive and harder to access because of concerns about addiction, which are valid. Insurance companies, he said, want patients to try every other option first. But sometimes opioids are the right medication for a patient, and Alford’s training aims to better educate doctors to make those tough calls. “There’s not enough emphasis put on education and training. There’s just emphasis put on regulations that minimize the number of prescriptions they can write,” he said. “That’s going to solve the overprescribing problem, but it’s certainly not going to solve under-prescribing or the effective prescribing, getting the opioids to the right patients at the right times.”

And what can patients do? Alford stressed that patients, too, must understand that opioid painkillers are not a magic bullet – and that the patient is ultimately responsible for the security and safe use of their medication, whatever it may be.

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  • Brenda Alice Smith

    Dr Alford should start educating the FDA who has successfully scared Doctors and pharmacies from providing adequate pain relief because of their fear of being closed. Now that pharmacists have the right to refuse to fill legitimate prescriptions is frightening. Many suffer from chronic painful diseases that require pain control. Now to stop drug abuse the FDA has decided to punish patients rather than arrest the dealers and provide drug rehabilitation. Chronic pain patients are now treated as criminals and forced to undergo useless dangerous painful procedures. Does anyone really believe that being forced monthly for urine drug screens in bathrooms with no faucets are fun or being made to take antidepressants which have side effects, addicting and mostly unproven is going to sell the medication they need. WE are giving up rights and I don’t believe the pharmacist has the whole picture when they decide who or what they will dispense. Everyone or someone in the family will need pain medication at some point. I agree and applaud your program as you seem to realize that people can or should be able to decide what is right for them without the fear of the FDA and pharmacies over riding the decision made between patient and Doctor. For many people THE quality of life with adequate pain relief is more important than life in disabling pain. Stopping the ignorance and discrimination is so important. Thank you.

  • J. Dischel, MD

    Where and when is this training program?

    • Sara

      Hi, This is from Dr. Alford: 
      The training can be found on 
      The next live training will be in Manchester, VT on Oct. 20 and Concord, NH on Nov. 17. 
      Registration for these and future trainings will be posted on

      • Flclanranald

        Dr. Alford,
           You will please accept the following rant with the kind of patience and understanding that this article clearly attributes to you and your professional approach.  Being a genuine patient and being systematically treated like a scam artist addict is rather off-putting to say the least.  And the utterly un-necessary pain and suffering that I have been put through in the past year is inhumane.

        Until stem cell research solves the problem of nerve regeneration, those of us with nerve damage and the associated pain can indeed be dependent on being properly treated to maintain functionality.
        My move to Mass from another state resulted in unbelievable expense in re-diagnosis of an existing condition because clearly all the doctors in my previous home state were complete rubes and only HAHVAHD trained physicians knew anything. The result of over $10K cost to my insurance company was an exact verification of an existing condition. BRILLIANT!! What geniuses these boys are!
        So the next move was to completely alter a treatment plan that had been fine honed over 4 yrs that treated me and allowed a normal, functional, productive life (might as well read that as working and paying taxes….you know, contributing to society). The new treatment plan was a complete bust, a manifest failure and a refusal on the part of Drs. Wizard and Company to acknowledge that they has mucked around trying to fix something that was working until they broke it.
        I have now finally been marginalized and repeatedly been viewed as a “drug seeker” (in spite of very high clearances for my work in the defense industry and having had my previous treatment program vetted and approved by the relevant investigative agencies) and am back on my original treatment program.
        It has taken almost the full year since I’ve move to Mass to get properly treated and get my life fully functional again.

        Let me state this most clearly…..the medical educational establishments here in Mass may be viewed as the best in the world, but their product, the physicians, appear to be little more than other ego-maniacs, and the state health care system is in an astonishing spiral to the bottom of the pit.

  • Diana Lee

    No one should ever WANT to be on opioids for an extended time. Unfortunately for some of us our chronic pain conditions are such that we need to be as part of an overarching plan for managing our pain.

    Instead of putting new road blocks up for patients and doctors, why not provide patients with additional tools for managing their pain, such as behavioral tools? It isn’t an either/or proposition. Is this really about preventing addiction or about saving money? I don’t know, but I know it will hurt patients.

    We need less of insurance companies practicing medicine, not more.

  • CNA jobs description

    Nice article.. Nursing is a great profession. The info you have shared is very common. This sometimes happens with any of the patient. So, the doctors took this crucial step.