News & Media

Prescribing Opioids Safely: How to Facilitate Difficult Patient Conversations

Michigan Medicine - March/April 2017

Saturday, April 01, 2017

By Roneet Lev, MD, Chief of Scripps Mercy Emergency Department, Chair of Prescription Drug Abuse Medical Task Force, and President of Independent Emergency Physicians Consortium

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., and opioids account for over 60 percent of those deaths.1 While opioids are effective pain medications when used in the proper setting, concerns arise when the patient's condition lasts longer than three months, and prescribing more medication does not necessarily result in better pain control.

Building a strong doctor-patient rapport can help facilitate tough conversations with patients about opioid prescriptions and reduce risks. Communication issues appear in 40 percent of malpractice claims, according to a study by The Doctors Company.2 Incomplete or unclear communication can compromise patients' ability to understand the doctor's instructions and, especially in the case of pain medications, also make them feel as if the doctor doesn't care about their issues or concerns.

These tips can help when dealing with opioid requests and prescriptions:

  • Don't make the mistake of jumping to conclusions that the patient is a drug seeker because the patient is there repeatedly for the same pain complaint. It could instead be a situation of missed diagnosis. Treat this patient like any other patient. Take a good history, including a very detailed medication history. Do a thorough physical examination. See if something was missed on previous visits.
  • Your prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) is a valuable tool, like checking allergies and old records. Use the PDMP to learn about your patient's prescription patterns, not just to check for doctor shopping.
  • Medication refills for chronic conditions should have a medication agreement. ONE doctor and ONE pharmacy should prescribe controlled medication given for three months or more. This is true for dental pain, fractures, fibromyalgia, cancer, anxiety, and ADHD. If you see a patient for the third month of a controlled medication, start a medication agreement if you plan on continuing this therapy.
  • Opioid withdrawal is uncomfortable but not life-threatening. New patients who present to a new pain specialist should not immediately be given the pain medications they state they need. A pain specialist typically completes thorough research before making medication recommendations and it could be two weeks before the patient is placed on a regular regimen. You may find it necessary to send a patient home without a pain prescription if that patient has already received one in the past month from a different provider.
  • When patients say that their medication is not working, ask the patient, "How are you taking the medication?" You'll be surprised how many patients used 400mg of ibuprofen twice a day and it was not enough. Taking a detailed medication history and providing patient education about the right dosage, right timing, and side effects to be aware of is essential to medication safety.
  • When you hand a patient a prescription for a controlled medication, add a few words to let the patient know that these are serious medications: "I will give you a prescription for Norco. Please realize that this is a medication that can be abused. Keep it secure, take it only as prescribed, and do not drive if not fully alert."
  • Be aware of the level of health literacy of the individual patient, and adjust your language appropriately. Ask patients to repeat back the information you gave to ensure they properly understand.
  • Communicate the risk of medication theft to patients. Patients who are on a chronic treatment plan should know to watch their medication as closely as they would their money.

Get more safe prescribing resources at www.SanDiegoSafePrescribing.org and learn more about effective doctor-patient communication at www.thedoctors.com/askme3.


References

  1. Increases in drug and opioid-involved overdose deaths -- United States, 2010-2015. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. December 30, 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm655051e1.htm. Accessed January 26, 2017.
  2. Patient-centered communications: Building patient rapport. The Doctors Company. http://www.thedoctors.com/KnowledgeCenter/PatientSafety/articles/Patient-Centered-Communications-Building-Patient-Rapport. Accessed January 9, 2017.
     

Contributed by The Doctors Company (www.thedoctors.com)