Saturday, May 19, 2018

Wish I Had Said Some More About The Violence......

I shot a video for the 100 Miles 100 Stories charity yesterday.  Their mission is raise awareness for violence against healthcare workers.  They found me through a nurse that I used to work with who sustained a traumatic brain injury when she was assaulted in an emergency department.  The sequelae of that injury ended her career in nursing. The focus of this charity is to raise public awareness of the problem and hopefully find some solutions.  As I have posted on this blog many times, these incidents are generally preventable, but it requires both expertise and a major revision of the systems that most health professional work in every day. I had a meeting two weeks ago on the comments I could make in this area and the interview questions were based on that meeting.  I don't have a transcript or tape and the final version will be edited.  This is my recollection of what happened:

Q:  Tell us about your experience.

A:  I have been a psychiatrist for 32 years and about 22 of those years have been in acute care psychiatric settings at what is now called Regions Hospital.  It used to be St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center before it was acquired by HealthPartners.  For about 8 of those years a neurologist and I ran a clinic for Alzheimer's Disease and other dementias.

Q:  What kind of psychiatric diagnoses did you see?

A:  Bipolar disorder, major depression, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, personality disorders with a significant overlay of alcohol and substance use.

Q:  Were you ever assaulted?

A:  I was punched three times but there was no serious injury.  Threatening behavior was more a problem.  There were homicidal threats that had the most significant impact on me long term.  As an example, I started to be more conscious of home security and have home security and close circuit TV cameras installed.

The interview is biased on a personal point of view.  If I had been thinking more I could have mentioned what I had seen.  One psychiatrist punched and knocked out.  Another psychiatrist beaten up with a resulting career ending traumatic brain injury. Various injuries to nursing staff and nursing assistants who have the majority of contact with agitated and potentially aggressive patients.  One evening I was talking with nursing staff behind a window that we believed was shatterproof glass. Without warning the window exploded as a heavy chair sailed through it.  Being one step away from very serious injuries and deaths in many situations, but the downside is that may have seemed like an embellishment so I left it out.

Q:  Why do you think it is happening?

There are several reasons.  The lengths of stays in psychiatric units these days is either too long or too short.  People are discharged in 3 or 4 days or they are waiting there for weeks or months to go to a state hospital bed because they are committed.  Acute care inpatient units are not set up to accommodate people staying there that long.  When I interview people have been discharged from inpatients units they typically tell me that they were sitting around watching TV until they could convince somebody that they are not suicidal.

If we consider a person who is experiencing auditory hallucinations who goes to the emergency department for help they might not get admitted for that problem.  They will probably be told to go to an outpatient appointment in a month or two.  In the meantime - they are untreated and that symptoms gets worse.  If they come into the emergency department again, they may angry the second time.  The current system of care has a large circulating pool of partially stabilized or unstable patients that go between the ED, homelessness and homeless shelters, and acute care hospitals.

I should have used the term dangerousness.  I have written about it countless times on this blog but not in the interview.  Dangerousness is essentially the only way that people get admitted to inpatient psychiatric units any more.  That arbitrary business decision rations access to care for people who have also experienced rationing at a both the community level with less housing and at the state hospital level with a marked reduction is state hospital beds.

Q:  What do you think can be done about it?

Changes have to occur at two levels.  Government and business administrators have to open up access to more beds in both state hospitals and community housing.  There has has to be more enlightened management of those beds.  At the service provider level there needs to be a team approach to the problem.  Frequently if there is an assault related injury, there is a lot of silence and nobody talks about it.  Some splitting can occur and some disciplines may think that it can't happen to them.  The victims may blame themselves and become very isolated.  Administrators at every level need to support clinical teams to address this problem.  There needs to be in house experts to fix the problem and not outside consultants who typically know a lot less about problems and solutions.

Q:  What do you think is important about the 100 Miles 100 Stories Walk?

It raises public awareness about this issue and how it impacts health care workers. It might raise awareness about the expectation that it is part of the job and that many people expect health acre workers to accept it.  Hopefully it will also increase solidarity on this issue.

I should have added my opinion that there needs to be a zero tolerance rule for violence and aggression to healthcare workers.  They are after all doing their job taking care of people.

Q:  Is there anything else that you would like to cover?

I would like to mention that there are basically three groups the become violent in health care settings.  The first is people with severe mental illnesses who are making decisions based on a delusional thought process.  The second are people with acute or chronic intoxication states who are agitated or aggressive based on their use of an intoxicant.  The third group are people with personality disorders where aggression is a strategy or way of life.  Limits needs to be established with this group and they must be held accountable.

The interview ended at that point but there was obviously a lot more that could be said.  Like most people - I write a lot better than I speak.  I am sure that if you see the eventual clips I will be much less articulate and probably confabulated much of what I just wrote.

There is also a time constraint for these interviews and the consideration that the public probably wants to hear about the  general rather than the specific problems or proposed solutions. Certainly nobody has been flocking to this blog over the past years for my suggestions about violence or homicide prevention. 

I doubt that many people are aware of the fact that it is common that patients need to be physically restrained so that they don't injure themselves or anyone else.  I can recall being in an ICU setting when a young man suddenly got out of bed and started swinging an IV pole around his head.  An IV pole has a heavy metal base and anyone struck by that base would have been seriously injured.  He was doing this within a few feet of critically ill patients and the ICU nursing staff.  He was also delirious and completely unable to respond to verbal requests or guidance.  That is an illustration of how rapidly one of these situations can develop and also why there is a necessity for being able to respond to the problem rapidly.

I also might have discussed the informal triage system for dealing with violence or aggression.  In Minnesota not all hospitals will receive patients with this kind of problem.  Not all hospitals train their staff to physically intervene in an appropriate way.  In most health care facilities the training ends at how to approach the potentially aggressive patient and it assumes that the verbal intervention will be successful.  That will not work with very aggressive patients and training needs to include more specific physical measures.

There is also a lot of room to discuss environmental safety plans.  What is the physical design of the clinic or hospital ward?  Can changes in the design configuration provide additional safety for patients and staff.  In some cases it is just putting receptionists in safe areas where they are not in danger from walk ins or aggressive patients.  Does there need to be a law enforcement presence?  What about internal security?  What kind of plan needs to be in place to coordinate all of the personnel in emergencies?

Whatever the focus - these discussions need to get out there for the general public to consider.  The level of injuries to hospital staff and in some cases patients needs to improve greatly.  I emphasize again that the majority of these injuries affect nurses and nursing assistants.  Physicians have been  homicide victims as the result of some of this aggression.

In the cases of conscious directed violence - the perpetrators of that violence need to be prosecuted.  No health care employee should go to work every day fearing assault and in some cases disabling and career ending injuries.   

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


I was sent this link to an incident of emergency department violence from 1993.  That highlights the chronicity of the problem and the lack of effective solutions.  Quotes from the article:

"Health care workers noted, however, that the incident is only the most recent example of the rising tide of violence that has spilled over into the nation's urban emergency rooms."


"County-USC has been no exception. During the first six months of 1991, for example, security guards at the hospital responded to 1,400 reports of threats or attacks, six of which led to arrests. Among the assailants was a panhandler who approached four nurses in the cafeteria and plunged a pair of suture-removal scissors deep into one nurse's neck."

Monday, May 14, 2018

Addiction Narratives Versus Reality.......

I recently posted my take on this issue of race in addiction treatment. The main argument that I was responding to was that the current opioid epidemic is whitewashed so to speak. In other words white opioid addicts are considered to be "victims" of the opioid epidemic and black addicts are considered just to be addicts at best and criminalized at worst.  Part of the way that white people are framed as victims is by calling addiction a disease.  The author who I was critiquing at the time suggested that the opioid epidemic was marketed to white people along with the medication (buprenorphine) that would "cure" them.  Further, that buprenorphine was more easily available to white people by the nature of the prescribing requirements.  The article went on to selectively highlight one segment of the population where "non-Hispanic blacks" had a higher rate of overdose deaths, despite the fact that the majority of people dying in most categorizes were white.  I consider my counterargument to be a solid one and that is - there is no known difference in the biological predisposition to addiction of any kind that is based on race and if that likelihood is equal - the only consideration is who is exposed to the drug.

The racialization of the opioid epidemic picked up more speed over the weekend.  One of the theories proposed was that there were no previous "epidemics" of opioid use and that this is another way to sanitize the problem and make it more acceptable to white people.  The article was written for a newspaper - the Guardian and the headline says it all:  "Amid the opioid epidemic, white means victim, black means addict."  That is the basic thesis that runs through the entire essay.  You are either a white, Christian, Republican racist, who considers himself to be a victim of prescription opioid tablets or drug dealers or the hypocritical structure of American society insults you for being black and an addict.  It is suggested directly in the article that common rationalizations of addicts - the ones that everybody uses irrespective of race or substance are the exclusively used by whites to deny responsibility for addiction.  Self-loathing of the addict is described as though that never happens with white people.  Guilt, shame, and self loathing happens to everyone with an alcohol or drug misuse problem.
A couple of the arguments can be debunked at the outset. The idea that the term epidemics is applied only to white people so that they can rationalize being victims ignores the medical literature of the 1970s.  In those days researchers were using the terms epidemics and microepidemics and applying the terms across racial groups (3-6).  Successful naturalistic studies were conducted in both white and black neighborhoods and the success in a Chicago study (6) was  correlated with use of the term medical management.  Those same authors used what they called an infectious disease model for intervening in heroin epidemics (5).  The Chicago study was so successful that it was suggested as an alternative to involuntary treatment (4):

 "This work suggests that heroin addiction can be prevented in many who are at risk; it further suggests that prevention may be possible by using psychological and social concepts based on humanist principles without the use of coercion. The authors' approach deserves close attention not only because it offers hope in the face of a mounting national tragedy but also because of its relevance in the current high-level and little-publicized debate over the use of compulsory urine testing and compulsory treatment of drug dependent persons."   - p.1156
It appears that at least in psychiatry - humanism was emphasized as the critical element in treating drug dependent persons (not addicts) as far back as 46 years ago.  The design of the naturalistic study in question was impressive and methadone maintenance treatment was used in a majority of the patients.

The issue of differences in the story about the self perception of a white versus black addict does not have the equivalent empirical basis.  I can say unequivocally that any attitude in treatment about being a "victim" of substance use of any type  would be vigorously confronted by treatment staff.  It is not possible to actively participate in treatment with that attitude.  The same is true of the self loathing patient.  Guilt, shame, and self loathing need to be actively explored and corrected to allow participation in the recovery process.  Both attitudes can lead to distress or increased cravings to use drugs and alcohol and relapse.

What about the contention that cultural differences and disparities are the primary problem with treatment differences.  I refer any interested reader to an in depth analysis of the issues by Coleman Hughes (2) and what he describes as the disparity fallacy - in other words that the difference in outcomes between blacks and whites (or any two groups) is due to discrimination being the causal factor.  He lists an impressive number of examples, but I see the underlying principle as being one of undeterminism (7) that is there are multiple theories to account for differences, and people tend to have a favorite and ignore all of the other possibilities.  There is probably no better example than the race rhetoric around addiction.  The promotion of these arguments ignores the primary causes of addiction - a biological predisposition and exposure to the addictive substance.  I am not suggesting disparities are irrelevant to exposure or treatment access but focusing on them as casual ignores the major factors.           

The continued stories about racial differences in treatment and self perception are not really conducive to reshaping America's addiction treatment landscape.  It misses the big picture that there are no differences in race when it comes to addiction.  Any reasonable treatment approach would disabuse anybody coming through the door who believed they were either a victim or a self-loathing addict.  Identical treatment modalities should be offered irrespective of race and that includes medication assisted treatment of all types, necessary psychiatric and psychological treatment, medical evaluation and treatment, and drug and alcohol counseling focused on recovery.  One of the reasons why addiction is viewed as a chronic illness is the high likelihood of relapse and need for ongoing recovery services and support.  One of the main tenets of any 12-step recovery program based on the AA model is that nobody is turned away. The only requirement for membership is a desire to get sober.   

The real problem with drug and alcohol treatment is not racial disparity. It would be fairly obvious if racial discrimination was occurring in any comprehensive treatment program.  The real problem with drug and alcohol treatment is the lack of standards and consistency in treatment.  The most clear cut example is the availability of detox services.  Some forms of withdrawal are life threatening and need to be immediately recognized and treated.  I doubt that the majority of treatment programs in any state have that capability.  Hospitals have been defunded from providing detox services from anyone who is not experiencing life threatening withdrawal for about 30 years now. That has led to a proliferation of subpar and non-medical county detox facilities where limited to no medical care is rendered.  These kinds of inconsistencies in care occur across the board and it is common to see patients who have not received even basic addiction care - completing a treatment program and being released back to their home setting.

Racism has no place in medicine.  I have discussed the advantages of therapeutic neutrality on these pages before and certainly any physician who is not able to do that should not be practicing medicine in the 21st century.  The psychiatric standard for neutrality is higher.  Psychiatrists in particular are trained to understand cultural differences, but it is not possible to be an expert on every culture.  It is possible to appreciate the person in the room and proceed cautiously enough to assure that culturally sensitive care is being provided.         

In the end, there are clearly ways to prevent and treat addiction. Suggesting that race and the narratives around race are the primary factors that account for addiction or recovery is unfounded.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Brian Broome.  Amid the opioid epidemic, white means victim, black means addict.  April 28, 2018.

2:  Coleman Hughes.  The Racism Treadmill.  Quillette May 14, 2018.

3: DuPont RL, Greene MH. The dynamics of a heroin addiction epidemic. Science.1973 Aug 24;181(4101):716-22. PubMed PMID: 4724929.

4: Freedman DX, Senay EC. Heroin epidemics. JAMA. 1973 Mar 5;223(10):1155-6. PubMed PMID: 4739378. 

5: Hughes PH, Crawford GA. A contagious disease model for researching and intervening in heroin epidemics. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1972 Aug;27(2):149-55. PubMed PMID: 5042822.

6: Hughes PH, Senay EC, Parker R. The medical management of a heroin epidemic. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1972 Nov;27(5):585-91. PubMed PMID: 5080286.

7:  Stanford, Kyle, "Underdetermination of Scientific Theory", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

Friday, May 11, 2018

A Psychiatric Perspective on Beatdowns

My opinion on this is probably long overdue.

A beatdown is popular vernacular for beating someone mercilessly - often into an unconscious state. From the video I have seen of these scenarios - it is at least implicit that the person had done something to "deserve" the beatdown.  The best source of this video materiel is that follows the hip hop culture more closely than most mainstream television.  In watching those videos it is apparent that even the wealthiest and most influential celebrities are not averse to being affiliated with these activities, encouraging them, or even commenting on them.  Any casual observation of what happens during a beatdown illustrates that it is a situation with a very high likelihood of serious injury or death to the person who is being assaulted.

Take for example this TMZ clip entitled Cardi B Security Accused of Post-Met Gala Beatdown.  You see two young men punching a man who is on his back on the ground.  They are punching him rapidly and repeatedly.  When they finish another man runs in and kicks the victim as hard as he can while the victim is still laying defenseless on the ground.  I listened to the TMZ pundits analyze the situation.  One of those pundits is Harvey Levin who is the co-host and is also an attorney.  The consensus seemed to be that nobody had any problem with this man being repeatedly punched by two men when he was paying defenseless on the ground.  Only Harvey Levin thought that the kick was a little extreme and could result in legal charges.

The very first assault case that I was involved in occurred at a University Hospital outpatient clinic.  I was on the consult team and the clinic called to say that they had detained an outpatient who assaulted one of their clerical staff.  When she wasn't looking the patient hit her over the head with a cane as hard as he could.  I went down to assess the patient.  He was very calm and had no evidence of major psychiatric disorder.  He explained that he got impatient because the receptionist was not working fast enough and that was why he struck her. He had absolutely no remorse for injuring her. He minimized the potential for injury by hitting someone over the head with a relatively heavy object when they were not expecting to be hit.  He used the familiar rationalization: "If she didn't want to get hit she should have worked a little faster."  He was not intoxicated at the time.  I discussed the case with my attending and we both agreed that there was no psychiatric disorder and no reason why he should not go to jail to be charged for assault.

My attending psychiatrists at the time always tended to analyze the aggression. Punching or kicking someone when they were unable to protect themselves was viewed as a particularly negative sign and an event more commonly seen in antisocial individuals.  It led me to reflect on people I had known in my peer group who had been killed in fights.  One guy I played sports with who went away to college and ended up getting in a brawl at a large college bar.  He was apparently kicked in the side when he was on the ground. He went back to his dorm room and died that night of a ruptured spleen.  In another fight resulting in a kick to the head - that student went home and expired from a cerebral hemorrhage.  Both students were very bright, full of promise, well-liked and had no history of aggressive behavior but they were killed by blows that are commonly observed in movies and television shows. There are thousands of men incarcerated in this country for punching or kicking someone in a fight and killing them.  I can almost guarantee that at some point in their court proceeding somebody said: "I did not believe that hitting him that way could kill him."

There are mitigating factors in some of these situations.  Psychiatric disorders usually are not.  Personality disorders and intoxicated states are but not from a legal standpoint. Being intoxicated or a sociopath is not a defense in the American legal system.  The best chance to beat the charge is to appeal to sub-cultural mores: "Boys will be boys - it was just a fight gone bad and somebody died.  Nobody is to blame here!"  Or claim it was an accident or there was no intent to do harm.  In both of the cases I was personally aware of there was no case in one and in the other charges were dismissed by the court even though the victim in the case never threw a punch or acted in an aggressive manner.  American law is highly subjective and it is not likely that these cases can be decided in a consistent or necessarily rational manner. 

A medical and psychiatric perspective allows a different analysis.  The human brain has a gel like consistency and it floats inside the skull in cerebrospinal fluid. Any sudden force applied to the skull leads to a shock wave that is initially dispersed as the brain impacts the inside of the skull where the forces was applied (coup injury)  and then when the brain rebounds and strikes the opposite inside area of the skull (contre coupe injury).  Which each violent movement thousands of axons are sheared off in the white matter adjacent to cortical areas.  Some forces shear veins and even arteries that can lead to very rapid death if not treated.  Treatment may consist of neurosurgery that requires opening the skull to remove large blood clots and repair blood vessels.  In extreme cases a piece of bone needs to be removed and stored to allow for the expansion of brain swelling to reduce the chances of death.   Lesser forces lead to more persistent cognitive, personality, and neurological changes.  From a strictly medical perspective - given the amount of damage, morbidity, and mortality that a beatdown can cause it is obviously not a good idea to engage in this kind of activity.  Even widely approved activities like football and boxing can lead to brain damage and death from severe brain  injuries.

I have seen plenty of the victims in clinical practice.  People whose lives has been altered by being exposed to this kind of violence.  Traumatic brain injuries, cognitive disabilities, and post traumatic stress disorder.  Careers and marriages lost from these effects. 

From a psychiatric standpoint, the only acceptable reasons for using force against another are self-defense and stepping in to assist a person who cannot defend themselves.  The latter situation can be difficult to assess and personal safety is always a priority. Those criteria rule out a lot of common altercations based on insults or taunts.  If that happens -  the safest solution is to walk away.  These criteria also rule out violence and aggression as a solution to problems.  If that is an issue, find help for anger control and problems with aggression.  The criteria rule out intoxicants as a reason for using physical force.  If that happened repeatedly with alcohol or drug induced intoxication states - get help with the drug or alcohol problem.  Even self defense may not be an adequate excuse for becoming aggressive and injuring or killing someone.  If you are bigger, stronger, a better fighter, or armed and you can easily handle the aggressor - killing or injuring them might make a self defense strategy less likely to succeed.  The initial example would appear to be a case in point.  Two men on top of the man vigorously punching him at the outset of this clip for pursuing an autograph would violate the acceptable reasons. The next man kicking him is far worse if these blows resulted in significant injury. It is tempting to put these situations in a legal framework - an individual's conscious state is probably more applicable. If you kill or permanently disable someone as the aggressor in one of these situations your conscious state is permanently altered.  You have become a person who is capable of excessive violence and that is remembered the rest of your life. Your entire moral development up until the time of that incident is called into question.  Guilt, shame, doubt, and regret become a major part of your life.

Age is certainly a factor in these situations. I have not seen any statistics but most of the protagonists seem to be in their 20s and 30s.  That is not universal.  I have seen many videos of older assailants beating the elderly or assaulting people randomly on the street.  The vigor, poor judgment, problematic peer pressure, and excessive use of intoxicants make this demographic group the likely perpetrators of beatdowns.

If you like my standard spread the word. There should be no beatdowns of any kind.  They endanger lives, lead to disability, and and can have far ranging effects for perpetrators and victim - both physically and  psychologically. They are unnecessary in what are typically nuisance situations where there are better ways to resolve the problem, including just walking away.

Beatdowns can kill people. They are a throwback to ancient civilizations when conflicts were resolved by violence and the object was to kill all of the adjacent tribes members.  The toll is great and the next time somebody asks you if someone "deserved a beatdown" - let them know that nobody does.

And let them know that two or three people hitting someone when they are down and vulnerable is unconscionable.       

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Whitening of the Opioid Epidemic....

I was reading the most recent copy of the Psychiatric News (May 4, 2018) when a story jumped off the page at me.  It was called "How the Opioid Addiction Crisis Was Rendered 'White'.   I knew I had to post about it here because it contains several inaccuracies that typically occur when racial explanations are used to look into any complex phenomenon.

The article is about positions espoused by Helena Hansen, MD, PhD and in fairness it was not written by her.  There is no guarantee that she might consider these accurate depictions of her positions.  The article starts out discussing a 2015 PNAS article on mortality in white middle aged Americans (1) and what the authors termed "deaths of despair" claiming that the new opioid crisis affects these people "linked with social and economic causes: decreasing wages, disappearing jobs, and a diminishing standard of living."  In the same paragraph, the author points out that rate of increase of opioid related deaths is occurring in 55- 64 year old African Americans (see the recent respective slopes in the top 2 graphs used in the article).  For completeness, I suggest going through this data visualization and generating graphs for all of the age ranges, looking at absolute rates and the rate of increase, and comparing those generated graphs to the total deaths bar graph above it.

Dr. Hansen spells out a selective marketing strategy of opioids to white Americans - specifically selling them OxyContin as an opioid painkiller with minimal addictive properties in the 1990s.  She said that was followed up with selling white Americans buprenorphine as  a treatment for addiction.  She describes this as the "whitening" of a new class of opioids "against a backdrop of a long history in which heroin and other drugs of abuse were similarly "racialized" as the substances of choice among blacks and other minorities...."  The racializiation was accompanied with "sinister criminal imagery that ignored the socioeconomic circumstances that had always contributed to addiction in minority communities."

She suggests this racialization or whitening of the opioid epidemic was made possible by:

1.  Deliberate ethnic marketing by Big Pharma.
2.  The pharmaceutical "magic bullet" approach or buprenorphine as a solution to the opioid problem obscuring psychosocial and economic factors.
3.  A health care system that does not make psychosocial treatments equally accessible by "geography, class, or race".

She goes on to point out that the distribution of methadone versus buprenorphine has an unequal distribution with methadone being more inconvenient and distributed primarily in inner city neighborhoods.  Buprenorphine on the other hand is easier to take and is distributed primarily in the suburbs and is more easily available to the white middle class.

She brings up a familiar refrain that promoting addiction as a brain disease devoid of environmental or psychosocial context that "anyone" can get - is really code for "anyone" = "white".  She suggests that white opioid crisis has stimulated discussion of of economic revitalization for the white victims of addiction while the black victims were criminalized.  She concludes that addiction is rooted in "social problems mediated by mental illness" and therefore we need psychiatrists to address this problem.

As an addiction psychiatrist I have addressed all of these themes on this blog in the past.  I can make it as straightforward as possible.   All of the social, economic, and psychosocial explanations of addiction are highly flawed simply because the vast majority of Americans laboring under those conditions do not become addicted.  As far as I  can tell economic revitalization is political rhetoric, especially in the current circumstances where what the government will actually do to address the opioid crisis remains unclear. 

There are two critical variables for addiction.  The first is biology.  There are strong genetic components that correlate with addiction as well as some epigenetic components.  Race is not a factor.  On that same spectrum, genetics determine that some people are protected against addiction by their biologically determined reactions to addictive drugs and alcohol.  This is not speculation on my part it is a known historical fact and scientific fact.  No matter who you are or what your race is - you need this biological disposition to addiction or it probably is not going to happen.

The second variable comes down to exposure.  If there is no exposure of addiction prone individuals to the addicting drug there is no addiction.  That is where Dr. Hansen is partially right.  When Big Pharma targeted physicians to prescribe opioids for trivial pain and maintenance opioids for chronic noncancer pain that brought opioids to a much larger group of people, basically non-metropolitan whites who started to die in rural areas of opioid overdoses.  And it was much more than opioids.

The example I use in my lectures is a teenager in rural northern Minnesota in the 1970s versus today.  Let's say he knows his grandfather died of alcoholic cirrhosis and his father is an alcoholic.  What would he need to do in order to avoid being an alcoholic or addict in the 1970s versus today?  In other words if we assume his genetic make-up is the same and he inherited the family predisposition to alcohol misuse - what does he have to avoid?

In the 1970s there were basically three things: alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis.  In some areas of the country there was an amphetamine epidemic but that had not reached the northern frontiers of the US.  How about in 2018?  Today he has to avoid everything - opioids, alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, synthetic cannabinoids, amphetamine, methamphetamine, and everything he can acquire over the Internet.  We have gone from a country where rural (and white) Americans were relatively sheltered from all of these addictive compounds to where they are widespread and easily accessed.  So easy in fact that you can get many of them (opioids, amphetamines, benzodiazepines) directly from your physicians office.

I disagree with Dr. Hansen's basic theory of this opioid epidemic and how it was "whitened."  This is not a racial issue at all.  As I have been telling my students for nearly a decade now - "Until recently - why was a kid in northern Minnesota relatively protected against opioid addiction relative to a kid in the inner city?"

The answer is that kid in Minnesota - until recently - did not have to walk past any drug dealers on the way to school.

Now they do and the only relevant equation is biological predisposition + exposure = addiction.  That same simple equation is also the most compelling argument against legalization of addictive drugs because by definition it would mean a larger percentage of addictions with increasing exposure.

Men discriminate based on arbitrary definitions of race and class.

Biology does not. That is why anyone white or black can develop an addiction.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Case A, Deaton C. Rising midlife morbidity and mortality, US whites.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2015, 112 (49) 15078-15083; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1518393112

2:  Moran M.  How the Opioid Addiction Crisis Was Rendered White.  Psychiatric News, May 4, 2018, pages 19 and 23.

3:  Greene, Eddie L.Thomas, Charles R. et al.  Minority Health and Disparities-Related Issues: Part I
Medical Clinics of North America 2005, Volume 89 , Issue 4 , xi - xii

4:  Greene, Eddie L.Thomas, Charles R. et al.  Minority Health and Disparities-Related Issues: Part II
Medical Clinics of North America 2005 , Volume 89 , Issue 5 , xi - xii

Graphics Credit:

1:  National Center for Health Statistics - Drug Poisoning Mortality in the United States, 1999-2016

Supplementary (too tedious for the post).

Dr. Hansen
Dr. Dawson
Deliberate targeting of white people by Big Pharma marketing
Influence was at the physician and institutional level.  Increased access at many levels increased exposure to all Americans. Goal of the pharmaceutical industry is to develop “blockbuster” drugs by marketing and selling to as many physicians and patients as possible.
The pharmaceutical "magic bullet" approach or buprenorphine as a solution to the opioid problem obscuring psychosocial and economic factors.
If it was marketed that way – it was a poor job considering the number of overdoses that could have been prevented since it was released in 2002.  Even today there is widespread reluctance to prescribe it and use it and large social media groups advocating to not use it or taper off it. It is prescribed without considering the race of the patient.  In healthcare systems, a focus on a medication is frequently a way to not provide necessary services for anyone.  The obvious example is closing state mental hospitals and focusing on the success of chlorpromazine. 
A health care system that does not make psychosocial treatments equally accessible by "geography, class, or race".
The problems with racial and class disparities in care have been widely known and occurred long before the current opioid epidemic (see ref 3 and 4).  Government sanctioned managed care system has been rationing mental health and addiction care for 30 years for corporate profitability.  Despite continuous discussion of the epidemic there is little evidence that the infrastructure or service for treating addiction has improved in any way. 
No broader cultural theory.
Increased cultural permissiveness for drug use as evidence by widespread legalization of cannabis and the promotion of addictive drugs as therapeutic agents can increase the likelihood of illicit use.
Distribution of methadone clinics versus Suboxone prescribers
Suboxone is clearly more convenient but access to prescribers is very limited.  Suboxone patients often have to travel as far as they would have to get to a methadone clinic and then see a provider who does not accept health insurance and charges ala carte fees for service.  A segment of Suboxone users may do better on methadone.
Medical definition of addiction as a neurobiological disease that anyone can get was invented for white people.
Clearly applies to everyone unless you believe that there are some racial characteristics to suggest that one race is more susceptible than another.  As is the case with the majority of human illnesses I don’t believe there are any susceptibilities to acquired illness based on race.
Mental illness is a product of socioeconomic circumstances and a precursor to addiction.
In genetic studies mental illness co-aggregates with addictive disorders, genetic susceptibility to one increases susceptibility to the other.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Brompton Cocktail - The Magical Qualities of Addictive Drugs....

I was talking to a colleague today about problems in the addiction field.  She was referring to problem with opioids and suddenly I had the association: "Brompton Cocktail."  The Brompton Cocktail was a mixture of alcohol, cocaine, morphine and other ingredients that had purported superior pain alleviating qualities compared with any other available medication at the time.  I first encountered the term on a medicine rotation as a medical student.  Our attending physicians at the time were two very bright hematologist-oncologists.  One was older and more cerebral with many publications.  The other was younger, outspoken and generally edgier.  He had just completed his fellowship.  When the conversation turned to pain relief for patients with cancer pain he made it very clear that his preference was "Brompton's Cocktail" but that it was not available in the United States.  He railed against the regulations in this country that prevented him from providing Brompton's to his American patients.

That piqued my interest at the time.  The natural question is why Americans were being denied a superior analgesic?  The second question was - why all of the polypharmacy?  Alcohol was an analgesic out of the old west - why would it need to be mixed with morphine and cocaine?  And why the cocaine?  It could certainly be a local anesthetic that could restrict blood flow in ENT procedures - but would it really provide widespread pain relief if it was ingested and systemically absorbed?  Further research in the matter showed that in addition to gin - vodka and whiskey were being used as the alcoholic beverage.  Some people added tincture of cannabis.  Others added anti-nausea medication like phenothiazines or antihistamines.

These combinations in elixir form were popular in Europe where their original use was in mainstream surgery in the late 1890s.  They became widespread in the 1920s and 1930s when many formulations were listed in the medical literature and practitioners often had their own custom formulations.  One of the references I read suggested that the patient could be given a choice in terms of the alcohol component (vodka, whiskey, or gin) and it gave them a sense of control over their medication.  There were some modifications of the original formula based on economic considerations - like the cost of cocaine.  The most striking feature of this mixture is that it persisted in use in medical facilities for nearly 100 years!  My medical school professor was telling me it was the ultimate pain medication in 1982.  Available evidence accumulating in the 1970s eventually illustrated that for pain relief there was no advantage of an exotic mixture over morphine monotherapy (1).   And that (in addition to more permissive use of opioids) brings us into the current period of opioid and nonopioid treatment of chronic pain, although the Brompton mixture was used almost exclusively for severe postoperative pain or pain associated with malignancy.

One of the strong themes in medical care as in the rest of American culture is the lack of appreciation of how past history factors into current medical care.  Although there were probably two biases in the early 20th century leading to the use of Brompton - the lack of manufactured pharmaceuticals and the potent effects of both cocaine and morphine, the same biases exist today.  The common bias noted on this blog has been the idea that opioids are universally effective for acute and chronic pain.  We are seeing an emphasis on cannabis as a treatment for pain and tincture of cannabis was an element of Brompton a century ago and it was eventually eliminated.  Unusual combinations of prescription medications are combined with the hope that they will provide some pain relief including opioids, sedative-hypnotics for sleep, benzodiazepines for anxiety and muscle spasm, muscle relaxants, gabapentinoids, and antidepressants.  I see patients who are taking extended release forms of opioids who are also given immediate release forms of the same opioid and told that they are "rescue" medications in the event that they have breakthrough pain not treated by their maintenance extended release medication.  I see people with implanted opioid pumps who are given immediate release medications for the same reason.  In both cases they tell me that their pain is the same but they continue using the rescue medication.

In a previous post on medical cannabis, I posted that some physician advocates talk about the entourage effect and why the whole plant needs to be smoked for pain relief.   The uniting thread in all of these approaches is that there is a predominance of potentially addictive drugs.  Addictive drugs always seem to be imbued with magical qualities - whether it is pain relief or the recent push to use psychedelics for whatever ails you. That always leads me to ask - is this medication working for pain or is it just reinforcing its own use?

All of these approaches strike me as being not much more scientific than Brompton Cocktail.  Like all historical lessons about addictive drugs and their purported effects - Brompton is nearly forgotten.

I nearly forgot it myself.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1: Melzack R, Mount BM, Gordon JM. The Brompton mixture versus morphine solution given orally: effects on pain. Can Med Assoc J. 1979 Feb 17;120(4):435-8. PubMed PMID: 376079.


Sunday, April 29, 2018

I Was Compassionate Today ........

I attended the Minnesota Psychiatric Society (MPS) Spring Scientific Meeting today entitled "Reclaiming Our Joy and Wonder as Healers."  The full program of that venue is available online at this site.  In the registration process I noted that a lot of the content seemed to be experiential and that is my least favorite kind of conference.  To make sure I did not miss anything I compared notes with a long time colleague and she agreed and had the same selection process - try to avoid the experiential components of the program.  I was generally successful, but more about that later.

The program did begin with three lectures and ample audience participation.  The presentations on happiness and burnout seemed to be an uncritical look at happiness and gratitude science.  The lead off speaker talked about his personal experience in a health care system that sustained 2 physician suicides in less than a year and how he led the effort to reduce physician burnout.  He discussed some straightforward exercises in gratitude and happiness as well as the importance of human relationships.  He encouraged psychiatrists at one point to help out their nonpsychiatric colleagues in this area.  He provided extensive resources for physicians to use through a web site.

I worked with the second physician for over a decade in my previous position.  He discussed the clash of professional values and expectations with what happened in the family and intrapsychically and how he negotiated some of those transitions including going to a clinical track from an academic- research track.  He read part of this piece by Jamie Riches, DO - an Internal Medicine resident at Sloan Kettering and the impact of resident suicides.  It contained the familiar refrain: "The work does not stop!"  No matter what catastrophe you encounter as a physician (and there are many) you are expected to take a deep breath and get back to it - immediately.  A resident I worked with completed his shift and the final admission note on 15 patients he had seen that night despite an upper GI bleed.  He did not seek medical attention until he had signed out at 8AM the next day.  Any bystander can look at these occurrences and other problems listed by Dr. Riches and see how physicians are shooting themselves in the foot.  You can't provide good care to patients if you can't take care of yourself.

The third morning lecturer was on the state hospital association and he discussed their attempts to address physician burnout.  They had graphed the degree of burnout in various medical organizations and concluded that interventions could be useful for decreasing burnout in general and burnout specifically due to the EHR.  I have seen first hand how survey data can be manipulated by health care organizations and I am skeptical that this data means much - especially when there was acknowledgement that the EHR itself has either not changed or the organization implemented the usual unhelpful EHR teams as the primary intervention.         

I was able to propose a thought experiment in an afternoon session on Compassion Training.  I am no stranger to Buddhism, meditation, or mindfulness techniques.  As a psychiatrist trained in the theory and maintenance of therapeutic neutrality, I was skeptical of emotionally loaded terms like "happiness" and "compassion" being used in the context of a therapeutic relationship.  Just about every definition of compassion includes terms like sympathy, pity, concern, and or sorrow for the plight of another person.  That seems a lot less precise than empathy.  The definition of empathy that I use is the technical version from Sims (1) : ".....empathy is a clinical instrument that needs to be used with skill to measure another person's internal subjective state using the observer's own capacity for emotional and cognitive experience as a yardstick.  Empathy is achieved by precise, insightful, persistent, and knowledgeable questioning until the doctor is able to give an account of the patent's subjective experience that the patient recognizes as his own."  Some definitions confuse empathy with passive understanding of another person's emotional state and compassion with understanding and a willingness to take action to help that person.  Psychiatrists trained like me use empathy to explore the person's subjective state for the purpose of understanding it and trying to help them.  It is anything but passive.  In the course, the various stages of meditations were also focused on developing a baseline compassion toward oneself.

I asked the instructor to consider the following thought experiment:

1.  In Room 1:  I am interviewing a patient with borderline personality disorder and proceeding by using the guiding concepts of therapeutic neutrality and empathy.

2.  In Room 2: A psychiatrist with compassion training is interviewing a patient with similar problems.

Question:  How would an observer compare the psychiatrists in Room 1 and Room 2?  Would there be any discernible differences between the two?

The response I got was quite interesting.  She suggested that the main difference would be after the interview was terminated - the compassion trained clinician would be less distressed after the interview than I would.  The problem with that response is that I am not distressed at all interviewing patients.  I have plenty of experience across a wide array of scenarios.  At some level, I am much more comfortable talking to people in my office than just about anywhere else.  The expectations are clear.  I know what I have to do and have done it tens of thousands of times in the past.  I can talk about anything a person wants to talk about including how they perceive me in that  situation.  In the interest of time and not wanting to appear argumentative, I did not bring that up.  It does raise the issue of whether the new interventions for burnout have much to add over appropriate training from the past.  I have practiced mindfulness techniques and meditation and like a lot of the patients  I see - they don't seem to add much.

In the summary session I requested the microphone.  I don't come across well in a potentially contentious environment.  When I speak people think that I am irritated or angry and that probably affects my message.  I consider myself to be passionate - but I am not really angry about anything.  It would be foolish to be angry about various things that haven't changed in 20 years.

At the micro level my emphasis was on direct connections. I described a scene from my internship, where another intern and I were responsible for a patient on a balloon pump in an ICU setting.  At one point we looked at one another and realized there was nothing more we could do.  I knew from the look on his face at 4AM that he was as distressed about the situation as I was. We did not know enough at the time to realize that there was nothing anyone could do - but it would have been very useful to have somebody tell us that.   In those days, there was an implicit rule that attending physicians should probably not be called at night and that everything in the hospital could be resolved by you and your Internal Medicine PGY3.  I only heard one attending ever give us explicit instructions and that was "I don't want to be surprised in the morning."  My resident had to translate it for me: "We need to call him if somebody is going down the tubes."  As an attending physician myself, I wanted to make  sure that never happened.  I got called by a resident who had a very confusing patient presentation and went in and made the diagnosis of serotonin syndrome and had the patient transferred to the ICU.  My emphasis at the micro level was that there has to be clear communication that you don't mind discussions and consultations about cases even when you are out in practice.  I am consulted by and consult many psychiatrists by phone and email on an ongoing basis and any time of the day and it has been a great source of professional development and peer support.

At the macro level, my message was politics.  The speaker touched on the EHR as a burnout factor and what they might need to do about it.  Nobody mentioned maintenance of certification.  Some people seemed irritated that I mentioned either politics or MOC in this course that was supposed to be about preventing burnout and creating a more resilient workplace.  I don't know what a more resilient workplace is.  The workplace is resilient simply because it is out of physician control and completely resistant to change.  There are more ways to get the EHR and MOC changed than hope that a hospital association will do it with survey data.  I proposed that physicians consider political activism at the level of the practice environment and the government level and that they consider defeating MOC.

At the end one of my colleagues told me she appreciated the approach to providing residents support and wished she had it in her training program.  I was glad I got that message out.  No takers on the EHR or MOC.

I will keep going and adding my two cents - even though my anxiety seems to be getting higher and higher every time.  At some level I probably realize that there are very few people who see the psychiatric world the way I do - and I know my time is limited.  I also know that I don't see anybody coming along who is prepared to challenge the status quo that seems to keep dictating our deteriorated practice environment.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Sims A.  Symptoms in the Mind, 3rd Edition.  Elsevier Limited, London (2003): p 3.

Graphic Credit:

Incense burner is from Shutterstock per their standard licensing agreement.

Friday, April 27, 2018

A Second Look At Recreational Cannabis - Already?

I don't know how many other people are weary of the onslaught of pro-cannabis propaganda over the past two decades.  The goal was clear to me at the outset - legalize marijuana.  I have previously posted that I think there will be legalized marijuana in every state in the United States.  I have also posted that "medical" marijuana or cannabis is basically a front for the legalize recreational marijuana movement.  I am very weary of all of the arguments about how cannabis is a miracle drug, how it will lead to stunning new discoveries, how it will lead to less opioid use and misuse, and all of the permutations of these pseudoscientific arguments.  Many of the legal arguments are just straight off-the-wall.  Those include put all the cannabis dealing cartels out of business, create jobs, and tax it as a great source of tax revenue.  The considerable downsides of adding another intoxicant to the culture seems to be mentioned only by a few psychiatrists who are familiar with a great many of the downsides from treating patients who have been using it for a lot longer than the legalization arguments have been in vogue.

A few of those problems became more evident last week. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper came on CNN and discussed several correlates of cannabis legalization in Colorado.  Property crimes and violent crimes are up.  The number of homeless in Denver is up and some believe this is a correlate of increased crime.  The number of lethal motor vehicle accidents involving cannabis are up.  He did not mention health care related phenomena including a doubling of cannabis related hospital billing codes, a five-fold increase in cannabis related mental health codes, and an 80% increase in cannabis related calls to poison control centers (3).  Unintentional pediatric exposure to cannabis was also observed (4) to increase.  None of the costs of this medical care has been calculated as an offset of the tax revenue from the cannabis.  Gov. Hickenlooper made the point that recent tax revenues were about $200 million relative to a state budget of $30 billion and about 1/3 of that revenue goes for associated law enforcement and educational activities.  He advised against any state making the decision to legalize cannabis based on a tax revenue argument (5).  The articles in the popular press seem to emphasize the need for flexibility with the great social experiment of recreational cannabis and the Governor seems all for that up to a point.  That point is if it is apparent that the social costs in terms of crime and motor vehicle accidents is really up. At that point he suggests that the current cannabis laws can be reversed

Rather than get caught up the old causation versus correlation argument, I can say unequivocally that it is naive to assume that the legalization of another intoxicant would not lead to more problems.  The suggestion that problems would be less and that society will be improved overall by the use of more intoxicants can only be seen as a blatant political ploy.  There will be more accidents, more acute toxicity, and more psychiatric morbidity due to cannabis.  I don't know if Colorado is adding up those costs and trying to compare them to any advantages of legalized cannabis, but I would not be surprised at all if Colorado taxpayers don't incur more liability from cannabis than revenue.

Before any cannabis promoters attempt to teach me about the costs of alcohol - read this blog.  There is more posted here on the costs of alcohol than you will find in most places.  My point is not that alcohol doesn't cost more.  My point is fairly obvious and that is every time you add an intoxicant to society it costs you something.  It is not free or a net benefit.   Once cannabis is legal in all 50 states it will be easier to estimate the total damage.

The other article that came out last week had to do with the 420 holiday and a very interesting plot by Staples and Redelmeirer (see Figure 1).  In this essay the authors look at the 420 holiday which is a celebration of cannabis.  The celebrants gather for mass consumption of cannabis. They studied 25 years of fatal crash data between the hours of 4:20PM and 11:59PM on April 20 and compared the crashes at that time to crashed on control days (April 13 and April 27 during the same time interval).  The Forest Plot below shows the findings across a number of comparisons.

The risk of fatal crashes was higher on 420 and significantly higher for younger drivers. On geographic analysis absolute risk of a fatal crash was highest in New York, Texas, and Georgia.  Relative risk (see original article) was decreased only in Minnesota.  The authors comment that even though the majority of the population does not celebrate 420 (or even know that it exists) the traffic accident risk is similar to what is seen on Super Bowl Sunday and policy makers might want to take this into consideration.  So might anyone interested in the drunken driving issue.  Is it possible that cannabis intoxicated drivers as a population are more impaired than alcohol intoxicated drivers?

Those are the considerations from last week.  I am sure that more will occur as the United States legalizes cannabis in very state and as it becomes a legitimate industry.  An issue flagged by the CDC several years ago was the use of synthetic cannabinoids in order to avoid occupation related drug screens, but their initial data was from a time before cannabis was legalized in Colorado.  And once again this post is not an argument for or against legalization.  I hope that I have been quite explicit in saying that I anticipate widespread legalization of cannabis.

This post and most of the posts on this blog are to document the expected fall out from increasing the amount of intoxicants consumed by the population. It is neither benign or beneficial as suggested by the advocates.   

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1: Staples JA, Redelmeier DA. The April 20 Cannabis Celebration and Fatal Traffic Crashes in the United States. JAMA Intern Med. 2018 Apr 1;178(4):569-572. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.8298. PubMed PMID: 29435568; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5876802.

2: Colorado Attorney General Announces Indictment of Massive Illegal Marijuana Trafficking Conspiracy. June 28, 2017.

3: Wang GS, Hall K, Vigil D, Banerji S, Monte A, VanDyke M. Marijuana and acutehealth care contacts in Colorado. Prev Med. 2017 Nov;104:24-30. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2017.03.022. Epub 2017 Mar 30. PubMed PMID: 28365373; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5623152.

4: Wang GS, Le Lait MC, Deakyne SJ, Bronstein AC, Bajaj L, Roosevelt G.Unintentional Pediatric Exposures to Marijuana in Colorado, 2009-2015. JAMA Pediatr. 2016 Sep 6;170(9):e160971. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.0971. Epub 2016 Sep 6. PubMed PMID: 27454910.

5: All Things Considered.  Colorado Gov. On How Federal Marijuana Decision Could Affect State.  January 4, 2018.

Graphics Credit:

1.  Photo at the top is a commercial cannabis grower from Shutterstock per their standard licensing agreement.

2.  Figure 1 above is reproduced with permission from [JAMA Intern Med. 2017. 178(4):569-572. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.8298. Copyright©(2017) American Medical Association. All rights reserved." from reference number 1. License number 4335700705440.