Prescription Drug Abuse Coverage in the Media: How Neutral is it?

An article published in Newsweek caused quite a stir with pain management professionals and organizations like the American Pain Foundation.

An article published in Newsweek caused quite a stir with pain management professionals and organizations like the American Pain Foundation.

Prescription Nation: Why we should worry about the quiet epidemic of painkiller abuse,” written by Newsweek staff writer Raina Kelley, delves into the issue of prescription drug abuse, highlighting data released by the Centers of Disease Control that documents a 400% increase of opioid pain killer abuse over the last decade. The article also questions why more isn’t being done to combat this problem as well as why the media and other outlets are not reacting as strongly to the critical data.

While Kelley’s article effectively draws attention to the existence of the misuse and abuse problem, the American Pain Foundation, a nonprofit organization that represents pain patients, argues that the article may negatively affect the image of the pain management field of medicine, which could impact how patients that truly need these medicines are treated.

The APF wrote in a newsletter/press release that the article was “not only one-sided and focused on deaths from pain medication abuse and misuse, but ultimately reinforced the stigmas and stereotypes associated with pain and pain management.”

“With a readership of more than four million, this alarmist article only contributes to barriers for people in pain,” the press release said.

APF urged members to write a letter to the editor to share their thoughts and make their issues with the article known.

The article claims there was “no real outcry” over the data reported by the CDC and the author writes that she believes this may be because the media somehow “didn’t explain this well enough.” Kelley stresses that one of the serious issues about the CDC report is that young people are abusing these drugs and reasoning that because they are prescribed by medical professionals they must be safe.

In addition to drawing attention to prescription drug misuse, abuse, and diversion, especially among youth, Kelley quoted several health professionals in the pain management industry to support these concerns. Dr. Marvin D. Seppala, chief medical officer of Hazelden, a nationally renowned addiction-treatment center, said that the problem stems from the dangerous nature of opioids, the naivety of baby boomers and young people in taking them, the fact that “most doctors are untrained in ‘how to properly prescribe these pills.’”

The APF news release claimed the quote was “insulting” and “insinuates that [baby boomers] will become a group of addicts if they are prescribed opioid medications.” In addition, the foundation felt the article “did not contain any quotes from an expert qualified to speak about addiction and pain.” What qualifies an expert to speak on the issue, however, was not made clear in the release.

Most importantly, the APF felt the article failed to include or explore “personal accounts” from pain sufferers that experience reductions in pain and a significant improvement in quality of life by “taking pain medication as directed and prescribed appropriately by knowledgeable health care providers.”

Because there was no inclusion of experts or patient stories confirming the genuine need for pain medication and discussion, the APF felt the article was biased and a number of commentators agreed. It is difficult to tell if any were influenced to comment as a direct plea from the APF but the stories, whether true or not, may reflect the views of the actual population of pain sufferers out there.

The following comment from David Kenberg is representative of the reaction to the article in the Newsweek comments section:

“IF YOU ONLY KNEW THE SEVERE SUFFERING REAL PATIENTS HAVE TO GO THROUGH PLUS THE STIGMA OF BEING A DRUG ATTIC BECAUSE OF ARTICLES LIKE THIS.I HAVE FULL-BODY RSD/CRPS AND ITS BEEN 11 LONG GRUELING YEARS FOR ME AND MY FAMILY.I BURN SEVERELY THROUGHOUT MY ENTIRE BODY WITH A TON OF PAIN AND WHEN I HAVE TO FIGHT MYSELF FOR MEDS THAT I WOULD NEVER HAVE PUT INTO MY BODY EVER UNLESS I HAD TO.WHY DONT YOU INTERVIEW PATIENTS LIKE US.”

Another commenter echoed the same concern:

“This article supports type of reporting that is so one sided that it leads to more harm than good. As a person in pain I know the reality of doctors, hospitals and the stigma connected to pain relieving (opioids) medications and how they effect someone who is suffering.”

The commenter continues on, writing that he sustained two head injuries within one year and shortly after began to have seizures, diplopia, and chronic pain in his head and neck. He had gone a few years looking for alternatives to opioid therapy but nothing proved successful. Finally he saw a pain management professional and began opioid therapy, which improved his quality of life and helped alleviate his pain.

What are your thoughts on the ways in which pain medication and the patients who need them are portrayed in the media?

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