Real World Health Care Blog

Pain Management: Opioid Adherence in Cancer Patients

This week, Real World Health Care speaks with Salimah H. Meghani, PhD, MBE, RN, FAAN. Dr. Meghani is an associate professor and term chair in Palliative Care at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. She is also associate director, NewCourtland Center for Transitions and Health. Her main research interest involves palliative care, specifically understanding and addressing sources of disparities in symptom management and outcomes among vulnerable patients.

We asked her about her study on analgesic adherence and health care utilization in outpatients with cancer pain, recently published in Patient Preference and Adherence. We also discussed the role of non-pharmacological approaches in treating cancer pain.

Opioid Adherence Patterns

Real World Health Care: Last year, you published an article: Patterns of analgesic adherence predict health care utilization among outpatients with cancer pain. Can you provide a brief summary of the article and talk about the study’s implications for cancer patients with pain management issues?

Salimah H. Meghani, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing

Salimah Meghani: This is the first study to understand how opioid adherence patterns, over time among cancer patients, relate to health care utilization outcomes. We used objective measures of adherence (Medication Event Monitoring System – MEMS) and novel adaptive methods recently validated by the co-author, Dr. George Knafl from UNC-Chapel Hill. We found that inconsistent adherence patterns of analgesics over time was significantly associated with hospitalization over a 3-month observation period. The interaction of inconsistent adherence and strong opioids (WHO step 3 opioids) was one of the strongest predictors of health care use. It should be noted that this was a serendipitous finding. We did not plan to study adherence patterns and health care utilization. It therefore needs validation in hypothesis-driven study.

RWHC: Are you currently involved in any new research programs studying pain management in cancer patients? If yes, can you briefly describe?

SM: Yes, I am studying outcomes of opioid adherence and adherence patterns among cancer outpatients. This is an important topic as few recent U.S. based studies exist on the topic despite all the recent guideline contentions (e.g., CDC guidelines for managing chronic pain including chronic cancer pain and ASCO response) and national policy debates on opioids.

How Patients Manage Cancer Pain

RWHC: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing researchers studying pain management in cancer patients? How can those challenges be addressed?

SM: One of the biggest challenges is that we know very little about how patients manage their cancer pain. We know that opioids are widely prescribed, but we also know that there is poor adherence to prescribed opioids. Other treatments such as acupuncture are not consistently covered by health insurance or lack data on clinical effectiveness. There is a need to understand how patients are managing their cancer pain and what health care systems can do better to address the great burden on unrelieved cancer pain. Future work should also include improving access to effective non-opioid treatments for cancer patients. My previous research has also documented racial and ethnic disparities in cancer pain treatment for African Americans, which requires continued attention.

Safe Opioid Use

RWHC: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing clinicians treating pain in cancer patients? How can those challenges be addressed?

SM: There is a lot of confusion among clinicians about the role of opioids and the safe and rational use of opioids among cancer patients. Unfortunately, there is little empirical evidence base about the outcomes of opioid treatment among cancer patients. A look at the recent CDC guidelines on managing chronic pain would indicate that cancer patients frequently, if not invariably, have been excluded from the studies of the outcomes of chronic opioid therapy. More empirical evidence is needed to help clinicians develop comfort in opioid prescriptions.

Non-Opioid Treatments

RWHC: What do you think is the role of non-pharmaceutical pain management therapies for cancer patients? How can clinicians integrate both pharmaceutical and non-pharma therapies for cancer patients?

SM: I think access to non-pharmacological treatments is the biggest problem. While the NCCN guidelines for cancer pain identify a number of non-pharmacological modalities, they are not readily accessible to cancer patients. I have argued this in a recent letter to JAMA Oncology about the CDC opioid guideline that recommends that non-opioid treatments should be the first line therapy for chronic pain. This paradigm assumes easy and consistent access to non-opioid treatments. Also, access to effective non-pharmacological treatments are very different among poor, minorities, those with limited literacy.

Global Disparities

RWHC: What initially attracted you to this field? What continues to inspire you about it?

SM: My original research interest was global disparities in opioid availability for cancer pain management and the role of the International Narcotics Control Board. After migrating to the United States, I became familiar with racial and ethnic disparities in pain care and the toll it has for patients and families. This work continues to inspire me.