In February 1999, Dr. Frank Fisher, a general practitioner in Shasta County, Calif., was arrested by agents from the California state attorney general's office and charged with drug trafficking and murder.
The arrest was based on records indicating that Dr. Fisher had been prescribing high doses of narcotic pain relievers to his patients, five of whom died. He lost his home and his medical practice and served five months in jail before it was discovered that the patients had died from accidents or from medical illnesses, not from the narcotics he prescribed.
All charges were dropped last year, and Dr. Fisher now has his medical license back. Yet his ordeal lingers as a cautionary tale of what can happen to doctors who treat pain aggressively.
No one questions that abuse of opiate painkillers is a problem. But federal and state law enforcement agents, who wield considerable power in deciding whether to initiate investigations, as well as the prosecutors and jurors who determine a doctor's fate if the case goes to trial, are often misled by obsolete ideas about the practice of pain medicine and the effects of opiate drugs.
Pain treatment itself is an area ripe for misinterpretation. Many patients who seek doctors' help have already tried nonsteroid anti-inflammatory drugs, conventional opiates like codeine and even surgery, yet they are still in severe pain from cancer, degenerative arthritis, nerve damage or other conditions. Large doses of medicines like hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), morphine or methadone may be required.
The red flags that rightly alert regulators to potential misconduct by doctors are, paradoxically, the very features that can also mark responsible care for intractable pain. These include prescribing high volumes of narcotic painkillers for extended periods, prescribing potentially lethal doses or prescribing several different drugs. In some regions, patients use several different pharmacies, at their doctor's instruction, because some pharmacists are reluctant to dispense large quantities of the medications.
To complicate matters further, doctor shopping can also be a sign of what is called pseudo-addiction: the efforts to obtain drugs look on the surface like drug addiction, but in fact represent the patient's attempt to attain an adequate level of pain control. Once that is achieved, the patient no longer presses for more narcotics.
We are unable to refer patients to doctors who will treat pain, if only because once a name gets out there, patients understandably flock, and then the doctor is targeted," said Siobhan Reynolds of Pain Relief Network, a patient advocacy group based in New York. The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, based in Tucson and dedicated to the concerns of private practitioners, has gone so far as to warn doctors against managing chronic pain, lest they face of years of harassment and legal fees, even prison. "If you do," the association enjoins, "first discuss the risks with your family."
Scattered evidence confirms these impressions. A 1998 survey of more than 1,300 physicians by the New York State Medical Society found that 60 percent were moderately or very concerned about the possibility of being investigated by regulatory authorities for prescribing opiates for noncancer pain.
A third said they prescribed lower quantities of pills and lower dosages "frequently" because of the possibility of eliciting an investigation. When asked how often they avoided prescribing a preferred drug for noncancer pain, because doing so required triplicate forms, half said "frequently." Link