Tag Archives: iom

In Opioid Guidelines We Trust?

A common recommendation to combat the current opioid epidemic is to provide physicians with opioid prescribing guidelines. Opioid guidelines synthesize the available research to inform judicious prescribing behaviors and safe dosages when opioids are needed. Given the seriousness of the opioid epidemic, it is not surprising that multiple organizations currently produce opioid prescribing guidelines. Opioid guidelines are based on evaluations of the research, but the guidelines themselves need to be evaluated critically, as well.

Guideline Evaluation

Fortunately, there are multiple standards currently available to evaluate guidelines, including AGREE (Appraisal of Guidelines, Research and Evaluation), IOM (Institute of Medicine), GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) and AMSTAR (A Measurement Tool to Assess Systematic Reviews). For example, the AGREE consortium’s latest standard (AGREE II) provides a 23-point checklist covering six domains: scope and purpose, stakeholder involvement, rigor of development, clarity of presentation, applicability and editorial independence. While some AGREE II domains are obvious criteria including “rigor of development” and “editorial independence,” other domains such as “applicability” are less obvious but important.

See also: Who’s Going to Pay for the Opioid Crisis?  

For example, one part of “applicability” is about providing advice or tools for translating recommendations into practice. This point is important considering opioid prescribing guidelines will only work if practitioners can integrate use of the guidelines into their workflow and can apply them effectively to the appropriate individuals. Most chronic opioid users’ first exposure to opioids is through a physician’s prescription, and physicians’ opioid-prescribing patterns have been shown to be associated with opioid abuse and deaths. Therefore, preventing unnecessary first exposure to opioids is crucial.

Guideline standards have shown that not all opioid treatment guidelines are of equal quality. For example, Nuckols et al. (2014) assessed 13 opioid guidelines using the AGREE II and AMSTAR instruments. The authors found AGREE II scores ranged from 3.00 to 6.20 on a 1 to 7 scale, and AMSTAR ratings ranged from poor to high. Four of the guidelines were “recommended against using … because of limited confidence in development methods, lack of evidence summaries or concerns about readability.” This research proves that the quality of opioid guidelines does vary.

The National Guidelines Clearinghouse (www.guideline.gov) is a publicly available resource that provides summaries of guidelines that comply with IOM standards. Although not all guidelines are available free on the National Guidelines Clearinghouse website, it could be a good starting point for finding organizations with guidelines that adhere to a guideline standard.

Jim Smith’s Story

Jim Smith’s occupational injury provides a useful example of how being prescribed opioids contrary to high-quality treatment recommendations may lead to serious health and economic consequences. Jim is a 38-year-old construction worker who suffered an extremely painful lower back strain while attempting to lift a heavy box. Against most guidelines’ recommendations, he was treated from the start with a long-acting opioid, on which he became first dependent and then addicted, taking increasingly higher doses. Even on doses exceeding most guidelines’ recommendations, Jim still suffered from pain and limited mobility. In addition, he began to require supplemental medication to treat the side effects of his opioid use, such as constipation. He subsequently underwent surgery on his lumbar spine, which did not provide him relief from his pain, and he ended up a chronic user of opioids, permanently disabled and housebound.

If Jim had been treated according to any of the current, high-quality opioid treatment guidelines, he would not have received a prescription for an opioid as an initial measure. He would have been counseled to try over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, sent to physical therapy, prescribed exercise and perhaps offered a course in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). If opioids had been truly necessary in the acute phase of Jim’s injury, he would have been prescribed a limited course and then been gradually tapered off.

See also: 3 Perspectives on Opioid Crisis in WC  


It is very important to find guidelines that both reduce initial use of opioids and serve to guide the physician in tapering chronic opioid users off these drugs. For someone who has been on opioids for a long time, the tapering process could take many months or years, and there could be both physical and psychological complications during the taper. The process for weaning someone off chronic opioid usage will be discussed in the next article in this series.

In conclusion, users of treatment guidelines put a lot of trust into the recommendations provided. Using only opioid treatment guidelines with sound quality and content helps keep that vital trust so clinicians can continue to use guidelines in combating the prescription opioid epidemic.

How To Avoid Public Backlash Against Price Transparency

“Audiences in the Washington area have been erupting in whoops, whistles and applause when actress Helen Hunt, playing the single mother of a chronically ill child, denounces HMOs with a string of unprintable epithets,” the Washington Post recounts in a story in 1998. “Hunt's character quickly apologizes for the outburst, but actor Harold Ramis, playing a physician, assures her that the apology is unwarranted. 'Actually, I think that's their technical name,' he says.”

While most people may not remember this movie, “As Good As It Gets,” they certainly are familiar with HMOs — and how unpopular they were with the public in the Clinton era, as embodied by this scene. Today, most purchasers and payers who once championed HMOs as the next great answer to health costs and quality are much more cautious about them: Less than 38 percent of employers offer an HMO benefit to their employees, almost always as one among many plan options.

Yet the basic principles behind HMOs remain appealing to employers. They can realign payment systems to incentivize prevention. If a procedure appears unnecessary, they don't pay for it — or they can require clinical evidence that it is indeed necessary. They can pivot services around the needs of the patient and coordinate care.

Employer reliance on HMOs has receded, but the problems HMOs were designed to address have only grown exponentially larger in recent years. Health costs exploded since “As Good As It Gets” debuted, and the persistent problems of fragmented services, inadequate prevention and unnecessary care waste at least a third of all money spent on healthcare, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM). But consumers hated HMO restrictions on choice and resented interference with the doctor-patient decisio-nmaking, and that doomed HMOs, however good their intentions may have been.

So purchasers moved in a new direction, aiming to uphold the original principles behind HMOs without interfering with patients' choices. Instead of tightly managing the services provided to employees, purchasers would take a hands-off approach and give consumers more information so they could make their own decisions about the right care at the right price. Instead of managed care, we'd have manage-your-own-care. The manage-your-own-care philosophy ultimately led to the accelerated growth of high deductible health plans, now the fastest-growing form of health insurance, in which employees and dependents enjoy a high level of choice of doctor and procedure but pay for much of it out of their own pocket. This gives consumers the incentive to “shop” for the best provider, search out the right prices, and make sure that the procedure and the costs are warranted.

In line with this development is a trend among purchasers to call for price transparency, including a demand for plans and individual providers to publicly report on how much employees must pay for services they seek. I support price transparency, with an important caveat: Price reporting must be interwoven with quality reporting, in all venues, every time. By contrast, price reporting decoupled from quality reporting could inspire the same backlash HMOs did. Here's how:

  • Your costs will grow. Anyone who has worked in healthcare knows that the current pricing and chargemaster scheme are nonsensical and are in no way correlated to the quality of care. What that means is you can't predict the quality by the price. But consumers don't understand that, and studies show that given the pricing options, they will select the highest priced provider — assuming that's automatically the highest quality provider. When you only show pricing, without coupling the dollar figures with an easily comprehended indicator of quality, consumers will head toward the highest priced option, especially after they have already satisfied the deductible and it's the purchaser's dime (i.e. during an inpatient stay). If a purchaser or plan tries to restrict choice of hospital, it will be perceived as a cynical effort to cut costs at the expense of patient quality — since the employee does not see for themselves that price is unrelated to quality.
  • Your company CEO will appear as the villainous businessman sweating on 60 Minutes. Employees will accuse their companies of choosing “cheaper” providers rather than the “best” providers, without any information on whether the less-expensive options are actually lower in quality. Comparing pricing information with quality information allows employers to make informed choices, and in turn, inform employees, too.
  • Your health plan will be treated as evildoer. If your employees continue to shop services by price alone, they will not appreciate any efforts by health plans to restrict choices of hospitals or otherwise make demands on hospitals. Health plans that try to do this on behalf of purchasers or as part of the exchanges will be subject to Helen Hunt-style vitriol for sacrificing quality as soon as the employee exhausts the deductible.

In the new movement away from managed care and toward manage-your-own-care, purchasers and payers are at a crossroads. They must take steps to educate their employees on how to select the best provider, including the weirdness of a market in which price tells you nothing about quality or vice-versa. Only by assuring full transparency of both quality and pricing — always coupled together — will the public learn the strange truth about getting the best care for themselves and their families. Purchasers and payers deserve credit for pushing for higher quality care, so they should insist on giving employees what they need to work toward that same goal. Don't be cast as the villain again.