One in five Canadians lives with chronic pain, but the cries of an estimated 800,000 British Columbians are not only being ignored, their suffering is being exacerbated by regulators limiting their access to both drugs and treatment.
First, in a move unprecedented in North America, the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons imposed mandatory opioid and narcotic prescription limits on doctors in 2016 in an attempt to avoid creating additional addicts and having more prescription drugs sold on the street.
Physicians who don’t comply can be fined up to $100,000 or have their licences revoked.
Now, the college is setting tough regulations for physicians administering pain-management injections.
“I’m enraged,” says Kate Mills, a 33-year-old, palliative care nurse who has been on disability leave for the past 18 months. “People like me are living in chronic, intractable pain and being ignored by doctors who are either too scared or too callous to care.”
She has an uncommon, congenital condition that causes chronic inflammation near her sacroiliac joint and in her lower back, which pushes down on her nerves causing “exquisite pain” down her leg.
Her first doctor essentially fired her, refusing to treat the pain. The next one prescribed Oxycodone to help Mills through until she was able to receive a steroid injection at a clinic, which kept the pain in check for several months.
But by the time the injection’s effects were wearing off, her GP went on extended medical leave. The locum assigned to Mills refused to prescribe her any medication and told her to go to an emergency room where she was given a prescription.
After numerous ER visits, Mills finally found a doctor two weeks ago who is willing to provide medication for her between injections. But he agreed only after Mills signed a contract agreeing that she won’t sell the drugs, will only go to one pharmacy and take the drugs only as prescribed.
She is lucky, though. Her pain management clinic will likely meet the college’s new standards that were developed by an advisory panel over the past three years out of concern about patient safety.
“Increasingly,” the college says on its website, “Procedural pain management is being provided in private clinics and physician offices, but without much guidance on appropriate credentials, settings, techniques and equipment.”
The new regulations would require physicians’ offices or clinics to become accredited facilities with standards on par with ambulatory surgery centres.
That means having tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment including resuscitation carts, high-resolution ultrasound, automated external defibrillators and electronic cardiograms with printout capability.
The college acknowledges that “patients do not require continuous ECG monitoring. However, the cardiac monitoring equipment must be available in the event a patient has an unintended reaction to the procedure.”
The disruption for patients will be huge, according to Dr. Helene Bertrand, a general practitioner, pain researcher and clinical instructor at UBC’s medical school.
She estimates that up to 80 per cent of the offices and clinics where the injections are currently being done won’t measure up and already wait times are up to 18 months.
When the new requirements come into force, Bertrand predicts patients will be waiting anywhere from four to seven years for treatment.
Bertrand herself will have to quit doing prolotherapy, which she has done for the past 18 years on everything from shoulders to necks to spine to ankles. That’s despite the fact she’s never been sued, never had a complaint filed with the college and has published, peer-reviewed research that revealed an 89 per cent success rate among 211 patients in her study group.
(Prolotherapy involves injecting a sugar solution close to injured or painful joints causing inflammation. That inflammation increases the blood supply and deposits collagen on tendons and ligaments helping to repair them.)
The college will not grandfather general practitioners already doing injection therapies. Instead it will restrict general practitioners to knees, ankles and shoulders. All other joint injections must be done by anesthetists or pain specialists.
For Joan Bellamy, that’s a huge step backward.
She’s suffered from chronic pain since 1983 and “undergone the gamut of medical approaches, often with excessive waits: hospital OP (outpatient), pharmacology, neurology, orthopedics, spinal, physiatry and private.”
Since 2000, she’s had multiple injections that have made a difference. But her doctor doesn’t meet the new qualifications.
“I am afraid that without her expertise … that pain will become an intolerable burden, and any search for treatment will result in inconceivable wait times and will debilitate me,” Bellamy wrote in a letter to the college and copied to me.
The near future for pain-sufferers looks grim with most physicians able to offer them little more than over-the-counter painkillers.
Ironically at a time when the provincial medical health officer and others are lobbying hard to have all drugs legalized so that addicts have access to a safe supply, chronic pain-sufferers are being marginalized. For them, it’s more difficult than ever to get what they need.
It’s forcing many of them facing a lifetime of exquisite and unbearable pain to at least contemplate one of two deadly choices: Buy potentially fentanyl-laced street drugs; or worse, ask for medically assisted dying.
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