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A group of medical organizations has written to the Joint Commission, urging it to drop pain as a 5th vital sign in the wake of the opioid abuse epidemic. Is it time to get rid of pain as a 5th vital sign?
Apr 16, 2016
The problem as I saw it was it was totally subjective. We don’t ask people what their blood pressure is. Granted that there is no objective way to measure pain, treating it as a vital sign can cause confusion for doctors and patients. I worked for the VA and our performance was often based on this “fifth vital sign ” and how we responded. I often saw patients on large doses of opioids who still claimed 8 out of 10 on the pain scale. What do you do with that?
This is all about money, not patients. Medicare is trying out different programs to reduce healthcare costs, and performance-based pay is one of them. How to determine if a doctor is doing his job? Ask the doctor or the patients? But PFROP is using the media- and government-hyped opioid “epidemic” to cozy up to all the doctors who hate patient reviews, especially if it’s costing them money. It’s a lesson on how to gain power and influence by increasing the number of people who support anything close to your agenda.
It’s like doctors think the only reason for a patient to give them a low score is because the doctor wouldn’t prescribe painkillers. Of course, the 400,000 patients who die every year due to the mistakes of doctors don’t get a chance to fill out a performance review. I’m guessing that many more doctors will be getting low scores because they will refuse to adequately treat both acute and chronic pain. And don’t you think they know that? This isn’t about patients, this is about money. And ideology.
Just think, if every tooth in your mouth constantly ached and throbbed, what would your pain levels be? My current pain levels average about a 7 on the 1-10 scale, but that hasn’t always been the case. I’m talking about the progression of an intractable pain condition over a 30-year period. How do you track that on a 1-10 scale? Even when I was on opioid therapy, my pain levels progressed, albeit more slowly than during the times when the pain was (and is) under-treated or untreated.
I also estimated that I received, on average, a 25% reduction in pain with opioid therapy. Did that change my average pain levels? Did my pain levels go from a 7 to a 5.25? No, that’s not what happened. The prescription drugs mostly kept me stable at a 7 (and away from a 10 and thoughts of suicide). After all, drugs are a treatment for pain, not a cure.
Let’s also acknowledge that rating pain on a scale of 1-10 is a very basic and inadequate measure of pain. Many things can affect how you rate your pain, like fear, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and anger. And also things like age, gender, and DNA.
“I often saw patients on large doses of opioids who still claimed 8 out of 10 on the pain scale. What do you do with that?”
As a doctor, you should try to understand all of these nuances, and that the pain scale is not an x-ray or blood test (none of which are 100% accurate). And as a doctor, stop putting so much pressure on pain patients to improve — why are you expecting miracles from drugs? Do you think drugs can stop the aging and degenerative processes? Do you expect all of your patients to improve from one treatment option? What kind of improvements are you demanding from your patients?
Patients are afraid to report any improvement in their pain levels. How are doctors going to change that dynamic? I’m guessing that doctors are now understanding how dentists feel, since most patients hate and fear going to the dentist. And do you know why? Because it’s freaking painful, that’s why.