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Alleviating Confusion around Pain Management Recommendations

New information from NCCN, ASCO, ASH, CDC, FDA, and others seeks to provide clear guidance on how to optimally manage cancer-related pain without exacerbating the ongoing opioid crisis—published jointly in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and JCO Oncology Practice.

PLYMOUTH MEETING, PA [April 7, 2020] — An article published today offers new clarity around the use of prescription opioids in pain management for people with a diagnosis or history of cancer and chronic pain. The joint publication appears in JNCCN—Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and JCO Oncology Practice, and includes authors from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network® (NCCN®), American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), American Society of Hematology (ASH), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The article describes the results of a meeting among the aforementioned groups, along with then-Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, MD. The organizations are working together to align information for prescribers, payers, and policymakers on how best to utilize guidelines when balancing the benefits and harms of any pain management strategy involving opioids.

“We all have the same goal: to help patients have the best quality-of-life possible,” said Robert W. Carlson, MD, Chief Executive Officer, NCCN. “That means ensuring access to appropriate, safe pain management, while not contributing to inappropriate opioid use and addiction. In recent years, the rise of opioid addiction and overdose in the United States has rightly led to increased scrutiny of opioid prescribing practices. However, multiple reports indicate that well-meaning regulatory and coverage policies have created significant barriers for many patients with cancer and sickle cell disease where careful opioid use may be clinically indicated for pain management. This is especially challenging for cancer survivors. Clinical practice guidelines can serve as a tool for policymakers to account for special populations and mitigate harm in policymaking.”

“Gaining clarification from CDC on its pain management guideline was critically important because, while it clearly states that it is not intended to apply to people with cancer, many payers misinterpreted it and are using it to make opioid coverage determinations—inappropriately—for that exact population,” said ASCO Chief Executive Officer Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, FASCO. “Addressing the misuse of opioids will require changes within the health care delivery system that protect the public and limit the potential for abuse, while also ensuring access to medically appropriate medication for individuals who live with severe chronic pain. An evidence-based approach will help make sure that one national crisis does not become two.”

“Debilitating, chronic pain that often starts in childhood is a hallmark symptom of sickle cell disease. At times that pain becomes so severe that clinically prescribed opioids are medically necessary for daily functioning, and in some cases opioid use at home under the supervision of a doctor can prevent hospitalization,” said ASH President Stephanie Lee, MD, MPH, of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “While curbing opioid abuse is an important public health priority, we must ensure that mitigation efforts do not create further barriers to care for people with sickle cell disease and cancer. We appreciate the efforts of the CDC to clarify clinical guidelines, and look forward to a continued partnership with the agency, NCCN, and ASCO as advocates for the necessary use of opioids for pain management to protect access for those who need it most.”

Following the initial meeting (which took place in November of 2018) the CDC issued a letter of clarification, explaining that the agency’s guidelines were developed to provide recommendations for primary care clinicians who prescribe opioids for patients with chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life care. The letter conveys that the CDC’s guideline is not intended to deny clinically appropriate opioid therapy, but rather to ensure that physicians and patients consider all safe and effective treatment options for pain management with the goal of reducing inappropriate use. The letter also notes that clinical practice guidelines for cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life care should be used for these special populations and provide useful guidance on the unique considerations for the use of opioids for pain control in cancer survivors.

Scott Gottlieb, MD, who was serving as Commissioner of the FDA at the time, also spoke during the initial meeting, and a summary of his remarks is included in the article. He clarified the agency’s position against a one-size-fits-all approach to opioid restriction policies, and stressed the importance of science-based prescribing criteria that took specific clinical situations into consideration. Commissioner Gottlieb also noted his support for evidence-based guidelines as a tool to differentiate between clinical situations in which opioids are overprescribed and conditions for which opioids may be the only appropriate pain management tool.

The article delves deeper into the different pain management guidelines and provided tools for determining how and why they differ. One key area of divergence was intended recipients, which included chronic pain sufferers, people in active cancer treatment, cancer survivors, and people with sickle cell disease. The article also highlights the following constants across guidelines:

  • Use of nonpharmacologic therapy and non-opioid pharmacologic therapy
  • Assessment of an individual’s likely benefit and risk prior to initiating opioid treatment
  • Development and implementation of strategies to maintain patient safety and minimize the risk of opioid misuse based on patient history and risk factors
  • Continuous monitoring and regular evaluations of effectiveness and necessity of opioid therapy
  • Patient education on goals of treatment and safer use of opioid analgesics
  • Optimization of adjuvant analgesics, psychosocial support, and interventional therapies in conjunction with opioid therapy
  • Gradual opioid dose reduction, when indicated, to prevent withdrawal symptoms

The article also calls for additional coverage across payers for non-opioid pain management therapies and additional training for prescribers on how to appropriately transition patients with substance use issues off of opioids. It concludes by stating that “pain management is a complex and multifactorial challenge,” and suggests further utilization of clinical practice guidelines as a resource to help inform policy, coverage determinations, and treatment decisions for safe, appropriate pain management.

“As an oncology nurse, I regularly see patients experiencing major challenges accessing appropriate pain management, including opioids” said Judith Paice, PhD, RN, Director of the Cancer Pain Program in the Division of Hematology-Oncology at the Feinberg School of Medicine and Member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, Chair of the ASCO Clinical Practice Guideline for Management of Chronic Pain in Survivors of Adult Cancers, and Member of the NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®) for Adult Cancer Pain. “The barriers they experience can include challenges with their insurer or limited supplies in the pharmacy. Additionally, prescriber confusion around recommendations, including misunderstandings about guidelines can contribute to these challenges. We hope this clarification will facilitate better use of guidelines for payers, policymakers, and prescribers.”

“Bridging the Gap Among Clinical Practice Guidelines for Pain Management in Cancer and Sickle Cell Disease” is available via open access at both JNCCN.org and ASCOPubs.org.

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About the National Comprehensive Cancer Network

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network® (NCCN®) is a not-for-profit alliance of 30 leading cancer centers devoted to patient care, research, and education. NCCN is dedicated to improving and facilitating quality, effective, efficient, and accessible cancer care so patients can live better lives. Through the leadership and expertise of clinical professionals at NCCN Member Institutions, NCCN develops resources that present valuable information to the numerous stakeholders in the health care delivery system. By defining and advancing high-quality cancer care, NCCN promotes the importance of continuous quality improvement and recognizes the significance of creating clinical practice guidelines appropriate for use by patients, clinicians, and other health care decision-makers around the world.

Clinicians, visit NCCN.org. Patients and caregivers, visit NCCN.org/patients. Media, visit NCCN.org/news. Follow NCCN on Twitter @NCCN, Facebook @NCCNorg, and Instagram @NCCNorg.

About the National Comprehensive Cancer Network

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network® (NCCN®) is a not-for-profit alliance of 30 leading cancer centers devoted to patient care, research, and education. NCCN is dedicated to improving and facilitating quality, effective, efficient, and accessible cancer care so patients can live better lives. Through the leadership and expertise of clinical professionals at NCCN Member Institutions, NCCN develops resources that present valuable information to the numerous stakeholders in the health care delivery system. By defining and advancing high-quality cancer care, NCCN promotes the importance of continuous quality improvement and recognizes the significance of creating clinical practice guidelines appropriate for use by patients, clinicians, and other health care decision-makers around the world.



The NCCN Member Institutions are:

  • Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center
  • Case Comprehensive Cancer Center/University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center and Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute
  • City of Hope National Medical Center
  • Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center | Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center
  • Duke Cancer Institute
  • Fox Chase Cancer Center
  • Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah
  • Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center/Seattle Cancer Care Alliance
  • The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins
  • Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University
  • Mayo Clinic Cancer Center
  • Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
  • Moffitt Cancer Center
  • The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center - James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute
  • O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB
  • Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine
  • St. Jude Children's Research Hospital/The University of Tennessee Health Science Center
  • Stanford Cancer Institute
  • UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center
  • UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • University of Colorado Cancer Center
  • University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center
  • The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
  • University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center
  • UT Southwestern Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center
  • Yale Cancer Center/Smilow Cancer Hospital