Reconciling Patient Safety and Epistemic Humility: An Ethical Use of Opioid Treatment Plans

Hastings Center Report 47 (3):34-35 (2017)
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Abstract

In this issue of the Hastings Center Report, Joshua Rager and Peter Schwartz suggest using opioid treatment agreements as public health monitoring tools to inform patients about “the requirements entailed by undergoing opioid therapy,” rather than as contractual agreements to alter patients’ individual behavior or to benefit them directly. Because Rager and Schwartz's argument presents suspected OTA violations as a justification to stop providing opioids yet does not highlight the broader epistemic and systemic context within which clinicians prescribe these medications, their proposal may perpetuate a climate of distrust and stigmatization without correcting systemic factors that may have placed patients and others at risk in the first place. Given the context of epistemic uncertainty regarding opioid safety and efficacy, insufficient training for opioid prescribers, and inadequate patient education, I propose replacing OTAs, which have a narrow focus on patient behaviors, with opioid treatment plans, which would promote mutual, collaborative, and shared decision-making on the most appropriate pain management program. An OTP can be ethically justified as a tool to prevent and treat iatrogenic addiction under a specific paradigm—one that adopts a default position of professional epistemic humility and holds all collaborative parties accountable in chronic pain management.

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