The International Herald Tribune reports that U.S. pain medicine use has increased 88%. Is that a good thing?
Many people will rush to claim that these figures show how pain medication is being abused in the United States (see Brett Favre or Rush Limbaugh). Others will claim that big Pharma’s advertising is leading people to purchase medication they don’t really need. “Spending on drug marketing has gone from $11 billion (€8.2 billion) in 1997 to nearly $30 billion (€22.4 billion) in 2005.”
On the other hand, increasing use of pain medication may be due to treatment philosophy changes. “Doctors who once advised patients that pain is part of the healing process began reversing course in the early 1980s; most now see pain management as an important ingredient in overcoming illness.”
Also, as the population ages, more and more people will need pain medication. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people over age 65 is projected to increase by 19 million people between 2000 and 2020.
The Healthcare Economist’s Recommendation
So what should be done? Do we need a crackdown on physicians who prescribe painkillers? I don’t think so. Doctors should abandon pain medicine prescription to their chronically ill patients for fear of jail time or government prosecution. The NY Times ran a story two months ago which chronicled how Dr. Ronald McIver was put in jail for over-prescribing pain medication to his chronically ill patients.
Loosening regulations will likely increase the amount of pain killers used for recreational purposes. Nevertheless, would increasing the difficulty for your grandmother to get some relief from her chronic illness be worth the tradeoff of marginally decreasing recreational pain killer usage of people who choose to do so out of their own volition? I’ll side with increasing my grandmother’s freedom to choose painkillers over restricting the freedom of recreational drug users every time.