This past month, 86 doctors from across Ontario have received the devastating news that their practices are being assessed by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario because of the extent of their opioid prescribing. No patient complaint was made against them but they are all now in the process of preparing their patient records and their offices for the assessment.
I have had a complaint to the College made against me by a former patient. I recall receiving the letter regarding the complaint and how anxious I was as I read it. No matter how effectively we work, or how thorough we are, we all feel as though complaints to the College threaten our career and our livelihood. The period of investigation is stressful and it is difficult to focus on continuing to do a good job with other patients while an investigation is ongoing. I know enough readers have had a complaint made against them to understand the stress I’m describing.
Who are these 86 doctors? From reading the coverage of this story in various news outlets, one is lead to believe that the prescribers are at fault. The Minister of Health describes that the doses some are prescribing “are equivalent to roughly 150 Tylenol 3’s being consumed in one day”. While this may be the equivalent, I doubt that this is actually the form in which these painkillers are being used.
As a psychiatrist, I absolutely agree that we have a serious problem across Canada because of addiction to opioids. As a psychiatrist who treats adolescents, I know that the access to these drugs is so easy that addiction to them is becoming more and more problematic. At the same time, I am concerned for the physicians who are prescribing painkillers in justifiably high doses to patients whose care depends upon them.
So, again, who are the doctors whose patients legitimately require high doses of opioids? Palliative patients, patients with serious addictions who are being weaned off opioids and chronic pain patients can all reasonably receive high doses of opioid drugs. These are all patients with special needs and there are very few doctors in Ontario with the expertise to look after them. We know there are long waits for palliative care. Many of those being weaned of opioids because of addiction problems are in shelters or prisons. Both shelters and prisons are underserved, with vulnerable populations and it is stressful to work in these environments. Chronic pain conditions are also difficult to manage and many doctors do not want this work.
A complaint was made against me to the College by a parent who was unhappy with a report I wrote for the Family Court that was unfavourable toward them having custody of their children. My response to the complaint was that I stopped doing any work where my opinion might be sought for court purposes. Imagine what it would mean if these 86 doctors stopped the work they are doing. What if they stopped doing palliative care, or work with the homeless or people in prison, or those experiencing chronic pain?
The stress of a College complaint is difficult, just one more thing to cope with in a practice of patients with special needs and in which there are few colleagues. I can understand giving up this work over time to avoid these stressors, as much as I know we desperately need these doctors who do this work.
In this special circumstance, where we do need to understand opioid prescribing and opioid addiction better, might there not have been a better way to find out more about those who prescribe high doses of opioids? To find out more about their patients? I am not saying that the College is insensitive or arbitrary. I do think the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario works very hard to take an educational approach. I am saying, however, that good doctors, who strive to provide the best care to the point of perfectionism, become so anxious when they hear from the college that it affects their sense of wellbeing. A person can only put up with this for so long before they do give up, and it is some of the most vulnerable patients who will be affected.