"We will treat the pain, but you should expect that you're going to have some pain. And you should also understand that taking a narcotic [dose so high] that you have no pain, really puts you at risk of becoming addicted to that narcotic," Schlosser said, recounting the new recommended script for surgeons speaking to their patients.
Besides issuing the uncomfortable warning, sparing use of opioids also takes more work on the hospital's part — trying nerve blocks and finding the most effective blend of non-narcotic medicine. Then after surgery, the nursing staff has to stick to it. If someone can get up and walk and cough without doubling over, maybe they don't need potentially addictive drugs, or at least not in high dosage, he said.
There are potential benefits aside from avoiding addiction.
"I've had people tell me that the constipation [resulting from opioid use] was way worse than the kidney stone," said Valerie Norton, head of the pharmacy and therapeutics council for Scripps Health System in San Diego, which is participating in the Health Trust working group.
"There are lots of other complications from opioids — severe constipation, nausea, itching, hallucinations, sleepiness. We really need to treat these drugs with respect and give people informed consent. And let people know these are not benign drugs."
Managing The Optics
Of course, business-wise, no one wants to be known as the hospital where treatment hurts more.
"You don't want to portray the fact that you're not going to treat people appropriately," said John Young, national medical director of cardiovascular services for LifePoint Health, another player at the table with Health Trust. The Nashville-based hospital chain is putting special emphasis on how it handles people coming into the ER looking for pain medicine.
Young said tightening up on opioids becomes a delicate matter but it's the right thing to do.
"We really do have a lot of responsibility and culpability and this burden, and so we have to make sure we do whatever we can to stem this tide and turn the ship in the other direction," he said.
While hospitals get their ship in order, some patients are taking personal responsibility.
Now that she's in recovery, Michelle Leavy won't touch opioids. That meant she had emergency gallbladder surgery in 2017 without any narcotics. Leavy said she was nervous about telling her doctors about her addiction, but they were happy to find opioid alternatives.
"I mean, it hurt," she said. "But I lived."
Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.