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Friday, January 13, 2012

Integrative medicine for pain control: He has been fired by doctors

Dr. Corey Waller’s story:
M. is a 34-year-old male with a relatively normal medical history, except that he had an injury to his hand six years ago that led to complex regional pain syndrome (formerly called reflex sympathetic dystrophy). There was injury to his spinal cord, so he required relatively complex treatment, because of the pain and swelling in his arm. His pain proved very hard to control with the opiates he got from his providers. Some of them tried some pain interventions, but no one addressed how it affected his life in general, e.g., his child, or his ability to work.

He’d had continuing frequent use of the Emergency Department, and had been “fired” by multiple physicians who tried to wean him off the pain meds. So he was generally angry and frustrated as a result of that, which created a lot of defiance, making him ready for a fight in the doctor’s office or the E.D. So ultimately, he didn’t get good care.

He came here to our Center for Integrative Medicine in western Michigan . My RN case manager, our social worker, and I saw him. We identified some financial issues, so we had our financial counselor talk with him too. The social worker got at some of the psychological issues that were secondary to his pain. We went through some different approaches to his treatment, and settled on one option.

In his first week, he had three visits scheduled (we offer a lot of visits in a compressed time), and he showed up for all of them. He has called a couple of times, but hasn’t walked in, though we encourage walk-ins from our current patients.

So far, that has paid off for him; he has already been making changes in his life, like organizing some things, getting out of bed when he should, getting Physical Therapy, meeting our requirements for calling our social worker for his scheduled Touch Base calls, filling out the prior authorization paperwork for his insurer, etc. We put a lot in the patient’s hands, to make them responsible for their care as much as we can.

He has been fired by doctors, because of arguments with them. Now he’s following through. Contracts don’t work with these patients; poorly controlled pain or the disease of addiction trumps any contract with the doctor. A contract between a doctor and a patient for pain medications, e.g., that the patient won’t receive narcotics in another setting, is a way for the doctor to fire a patient, to justify letting that patient go. That’s appalling! If a patient has breakthrough pain at 3 a.m., and goes to the E.D., I see that as evidence that my treatment plan hasn’t worked, that I’m not doing my job. Instead of contracts, we give them trust. They become more trustworthy in doing their job as patients. "Don't mistake this as naivety. This approach was born from extensive experience with this population."

We don’t fire anyone. We see their behavior as a symptom. We use a lot of carrots, not sticks. One carrot for M. is that I’ll work tirelessly to handle his rare, frustrating and very real disease, i.e., I’ve done my reading in the medical literature, and have gotten the approvals from the insurer as needed. That’s doing my side of the bargain. And my social workers have talked to their counselors, and have done their homework. It has to be a team effort. If a patient calls us, we need to answer them in a timely fashion.

You have to deal with the psychiatric component as well as the medical and social components. We saw that M. had a financial problem, which could get in his way. He was smoking two or three packs a day – that’s a lot of money! We treated him for that to free up his money. We gave him nicotine replacement therapy with counseling and close monitoring.

This week, we’ll give him a choice among three pathways we’ve come up with. We’ll put together the risks and the benefits, and let him mix and match based on his concerns. We let the patient decide on the treatment plan when possible, because if the patient can choose the therapy, it’ll be more effective.

Dr. Waller’s advice:
Ask the doctor: Give me three options, and tell me about their risks and benefits.

Thanks to Dr. Corey Waller for the interview, and to Liz Kidder and Bruce Rossman for setting it up.

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