Prescribers often contact me seeking help to interpret urine drug screens (UDS) in patients receiving chronic opioid therapy, the interpretation of which is causing significant angst for the provider. Before diving into this topic as I sit home sipping my coffee (possibly addicting), I want you to repeat the following out loud, three times; “Chronic opioids are the safest analgesics compared to all others”. Now, three more times; “Risk stratification is important when considering chronic opioid therapy”. Consider that gastrointestinal bleeds or kidney dysfunction seen with NSAIDs are non-issues, seizure would be rare (exception, tramadol), and liver toxicity as seen with acetaminophen is practically non-existent. But, opioids aren’t without risk of diversion. Various opioids are scheduled differently by the DEA (CI, CII, CIII, CV). Online MPA Degrees has an excellent schematic of commonly prescribed medications/pharmacological classes which succinctly clarifies DEA Schedules I through V. Before writing or filling a prescription for opioids (hydrocodone, oxycodone, oxymorphone, morphine, hydromorphone, or fentanyl, aka’ Lortabs®, Vicodin®, OxyContin®, Opana®, MSContin®, Kadian®, Avinza®, Dilaudid®, Duragesic®, and many more), we all ponder a very important query…
“Is chronic opioid therapy a right or a privilege?” Consider these facts:
The FSMB Model Policy for the Use of Controlled Substances for the Treatment of Pain offers succinct, but prudent advice when prescribing chronic opioids. Although there is no shortage of professional organizations and publications advocating similar policies, the allotted time with each patient, proper interpretation of the UDS or serum analysis, and lack of expertise in treating pain among medical providers, all contribute to a booming business for moguls wishing to obtain and divert opioids. Medical guidelines are only helpful if the healthcare provider is educated beyond the scribed content. According to retired DEA Administrator John Coleman (Fudin et.al. 2003), “Unlike the doctor shopper who skillfully but fraudulently feigns illness, the patient-dealer has a verifiable condition or pain syndrome that warrants treatment with potent analgesics. In a sense, the patient-dealer presents a double threat.”
- A 42 year old man with documented chronic back pain post-surgery for back x 2 is receiving MSContin® 100mg three times daily and 60mg twice daily, plus 30mg immediate release morphine every 4 hours. (Total daily morphine dose = 600mg). For 10 years, the patient fills the prescriptions regularly, flying clearly under the radar. Intermittent urine screens are sometimes positive and sometimes negative for “opiates”. Upon referral, the pain specialist (me) orders a serum morphine, the expected level of which should be approximately 216ng/mL. The laboratory report comes back 5ng/mL, the equivalent of a mere 15mg oral morphine perhaps 2 hours prior to the visit. A repeat serum comes back 0ng/mL, “none detected”. The street value of 600mg morphine per month is approximately $12,000. Without considering for inflation, that’s $144,000 per year, or $1,440,000 over ten years.
- An 83 year old women with chronic chronic right knee pain and fibromyalgia reports to pain clinic on OxyContin® 80mg every 12 hours, plus oxycodone IR 10mg four times daily as needed. Although oxycodone at low doses is not often picked up in the urine screen, high doses as seen here are surely expected to be positive. Her urine screen was negative for “opiates” and positive for cocaine. Now really, do I care if an 83 year woman wishes to snort cocaine? The answer is “only if she’s trading the prescribed oxycodone for her cocaine powder”.
Understanding pain management and mitigating risks collaboratively are essential if we want to get it right! In the words of my esteemed colleagues, “Alterum Alterius Auxilio Eget (Each Needs the Help of the Other)”.