This is the fourth article in a series of eight articles by Ilene Robeck, M.D. regarding difficult conversations a primary care provider may have when dealing with patients with chronic pain. This series is meant to be a guide for primary care providers facing these situations.
Difficult situation #4: A patient reports their pain medication as lost or stolen.
Advice: It is not unusual for a patient to report to their prescribing clinician that they have discovered that their prescription pain medication (or the written prescription) has been either lost or stolen, leading them to request a new prescription. It is important to distinguish between lost medications and stolen medications.
Losing a prescription form or a vial of medications may result from the occasional lapses that all patients may have. If this occurs only once it may not have significant medical implications, and the prescriber may choose to replace it without much concern. Losing a medication more than once, however, may imply that something else is going on. There are many possibilities. Is the patient experiencing some type of cognitive impairment, perhaps one that is being made worse by the medication? Does the patient need a further neurological evaluation? Is the patient impaired by the use of other substances? Should a urine drug screen and some simple labs including CBC, metabolic panel, and thyroid function studies, be done even as early as the first incident of a lost prescription? Is the patient misusing the prescription and running out of it early because they are taking more than prescribed, giving it away, or selling it?
Taking a consistent approach to a lost prescription is made much easier if the provider has reviewed their policy about this with the patient ahead of time. If this has not been done, the first time there is a lost prescription is not too late to create a written patient/provider agreement, outlining each of their roles and responsibilities.
Clinicians in practice with multiple-providers should establish and circulate a uniform, clinic-wide policy among patients and staff, to avoid confusion about what they do. Some practices choose a “one and done” policy, (the first time you lose it I will refill it, but never again), or a stricter policy of zero-tolerance, and no early refills, under any circumstance.
If you are not replacing the lost medication, you will need to inform the patient about the potential for withdrawal, and offer to prescribe medications to help diminish withdrawal symptoms. Prescribing these medications needs to be individualized, based upon the patient’s age, presence of other medical problems, use of other medications, and the patient’s ability to follow-up.
The problem of reports of stolen prescriptions is more ominous because there is another person involved, and potentially, another person has been put at risk. Medication theft is a situation that requires some form of investigation and should be reported to the appropriate authorities. It is important for the patient to think about who might have stolen the medication.
In my clinical practice I do not provide an early refill for a stolen prescription. Other providers may take a “one and done” approach to stolen prescriptions as well as lost prescriptions. Again, with stolen medication, I will educate the patient about withdrawal symptoms and develop a plan to manage them if they occur.
Repeated medication loss, or theft, is a strong indication that the patient is at high risk and that it is not safe for this patient to remain on this medication. If a medical reason, like cognitive decline, is discovered, this may be successfully addressed so that the patient can continue on the medication. However, if this cannot be done, or if the patient lives in an unsafe environment, the best course may be to taper and discontinue these medications, substituting treatments that are lower risk.
Describing how you address these problems before the patient has begun treatment, and before incidents of lost or stolen medication, is part of your description of the treatment plan, and it demonstrates the principal of shared responsibility.