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Patients Threaten Doctors Who Refuse to Prescribe Opioids


One patient threatened to shoot Dr. Terry Hunt if physical therapy didn't alleviate his pain as effectively as opioids. Another harassed hospital staff and roamed the hospital looking for Hunt after being told he was going to be discontinued from the painkillers he had been misusing.

Hunt was unharmed but shaken and decided to discharge both patients from the central Illinois hospital where he worked.

So when he heard about the attack at a Buffalo, Minnesota clinic, he immediately assumed it was related to opioids. In that incident, four people were wounded, one fatally, in a shooting and explosion. A suspect was arrested.

Hunt, who now works in Minnesota, said the incident made him think about his own workplace: "How safe are we?"

Authorities said 67-year-old Gregory Paul Ulrich, the suspect in the Allina Health Clinic attack, was unhappy with his treatment before he shot several people and set off three homemade bombs. A police report said he had made similar threats of mass shootings in 2018, allegedly as revenge against people who he said "tortured" him with back surgeries and prescribed medication. Associated Press reported this.

A former hospital roommate said Ulrich was upset when a doctor stopped prescribing him opioids and that he used other drugs and had untreated mental health problems.

Doctors who specialize in pain treatment say threats of violence have increased noticeably in recent years, as growing legal and regulatory pressure amid the deadly opioid epidemic has led many to prescribe alternative medications and reduce the use of opioids.

While some patients benefit from careful use of opioids, others are better off managing pain with other methods, experts say. Many become addicted to drugs that were meant for short-term use after surgery.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a pain specialist, Brandeis University professor, and founder of the organization "Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing," said patients believe opioids solve their core problem and that without the medication, "they feel excruciating, torturous pain."

"It's much easier to give a patient what they want. You write a prescription ... they leave happy and no problems. Trying to help a patient reduce their dose ... much harder," Kolodny said.

And when a doctor says "no," things can turn ugly.

"We've had patients waiting for doctors in parking lots to intimidate them. They've said, 'We'll shoot you' or 'We'll burn your house down,'" said Dr. Carrie DeLone, regional medical director of Penn State Health Community Medical Group.

Nearly half of pain doctors cited opioid prescribing as the cause of threats.

To protect themselves, medical professionals are installing alarm systems and panic buttons and configuring examination rooms to be closer to doors. Some even advocate for carrying firearms. Smaller clinics are considered at the greatest risk, as they may not always be able to provide adequate security.