June 1, 2017


1980 Doctor's Letter Helped Fuel Opioid Epidemic (Marilynn Marchione, 6/01/17, AP)

Nearly 40 years ago, a respected doctor wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine with some very good news: Out of nearly 40,000 patients given powerful pain drugs in a Boston hospital, only four addictions were documented.

Doctors had been wary of opioids, fearing patients would get hooked. Reassured by the letter, which called this "rare" in those with no history of addiction, they pulled out their prescription pads and spread the good news in their own published reports.

And that is how a one-paragraph letter with no supporting information helped seed a nationwide epidemic of misuse of drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin by convincing doctors that opioids were safer than we now know them to be.

On Wednesday, the journal published an editor's note about the 1980 letter and an analysis from Canadian researchers of how often it has been cited -- more than 600 times, often inaccurately.

Most used it as evidence that addiction was rare, and most did not say it only concerned hospitalized patients, not outpatient or chronic pain situations such as bad backs and severe arthritis that opioids came to be used for.

"This pain population with no abuse history is literally at no risk for addiction," one citation said. "There have been studies suggesting that addiction rarely evolves in the setting of painful conditions," said another.

"It's difficult to overstate the role of this letter," said Dr. David Juurlink of the University of Toronto, who led the analysis. "It was the key bit of literature that helped the opiate manufacturers convince front-line doctors that addiction is not a concern."

One of the great flaws of the American health care system is that doctors have an incentive to give you anything you ask for, like pain medications you don't need. 

Posted by at June 1, 2017 5:28 AM