Iowa Hospitals Place Limits on Painkillers

October 2, 2012

Hospitals in the Des Moines, Iowa, area are imposing limits on painkiller prescriptions to limit abuse of the drugs.

The Des Moines Register reports that Iowa Health-Des Moines plans to join rival Mercy Medical Center in restricting access to painkillers.

The hospitals are reacting to increasing abuse of pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Last year, Mercy put up signs in its emergency room warning that doctors will only prescribe pain medications for emergency conditions. Iowa Health-Des Moines is planning to post similar notifications.

Dr. Gary Hemann, chairman of Mercy’s emergency department, said because they don’t see their patients on an ongoing basis it can be hard for doctors in emergency rooms and urgent care facilities to tell whether a patient is lying about pain.

“You want to be compassionate and help your patients, but sometimes you can’t tell who’s telling the truth,” Hemann said.

The hospital signs spell out the circumstances when emergency room doctors will order pain medicines. The signs also warn that anyone who is given strong pain medicine will only receive a small supply to help them until they see their regular doctors.

The Mercy signs also say doctors will not replace lost or stolen prescriptions for long-acting pain medications. And hospital staff may run patient names through a new statewide database to check whether they had recently filled similar prescriptions for pain medication.

But people who suffer genuine chronic pain might be offended by the signs. Karen Schreiber, of Boone, said she has endured pain from a liver problem for 10 years. The 54-year-old said Mercy’s policy is troubling.

“I’d feel like I was being pre-judged. How do you prove you’re having pain?” Schreiber said.

But leaders of Iowa Health-Des Moines say the signs will help.

“We look at these signs as a way to create a consistent message across our system,” said Jesse DeWaard, executive director of Iowa Health’s emergency services.

DeWaard said patients with chronic pain should be treated by their primary-care doctors. But emergency physicians can help with a sudden change in a person’s condition, like a broken bone or unexplained spike in pain.

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