A history of spinal injury left Mr. B, aged 49 years, with daily pain levels that rendered him unable to work a steady job. The most helpful medication is a narcotic pain medicine. Mr. B signed a pain-management contract with the provider and stated his understanding of the contents. Several months later, marijuana was found on a routine drug screen of the patient’s urine. According to the contract, this was a violation, and the medical director of the pain program insisted on stopping Mr. B’s narcotics. The patient, however, denied any other infraction of the contract and blamed the result on a bad decision made while getting together with some of his old friends. Mr. B stated that he would not be able to sleep or enjoy any quality of life without his pain medications and would lose his part-time job.
Level 2 issue
Issue: Violation of pain-management agreement
Players: Patient, provider, and system (pain-management program)
Existing regulations/laws: Hospital policy defining the consequences of violating narcotic contract
Autonomy: Patient admits that he knowingly violated contract.
Balance: Other than the regulatory breach, use of marijuana did no detectable harm. Discontinuation of narcotic pain medications would have a significantly negative effect on the patient’s life.
Justice: Narcotic pain medication was inexpensive; when the patient’s pain was controlled he could perform part-time work. The violation had resulted in no other negative impact.
Course of action: The provider met with the medical program director to discuss this case. Based on the terminology of the regulation, the medical director was able to enact a probationary period. The patient was allowed to continue the narcotic pain medication with stipulations: Instead of a 30-day supply, only a week’s supply was dispensed at a time; frequent, random urine drug screens were performed; any further infraction would result in the medication being stopped.
Ethical questions in health care will never have easy answers, primarily because the issues have such a significant impact on the lives of the people involved. These matters are, by nature, weighty, often with life-or-death consequences. In spite of the staggering medical and technological advances, the basics of humanity do not change. In the absence of a clear right or wrong, clinicians must focus on the shoulds or oughts. n
Dr. Sego is a primary-care nurse practitioner at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Kansas City, Mo.
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4. Beauchamp TL, Childress JF. Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 4th ed. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press; 2001:326-328.
7. Beidler SM. Ethical issues experienced by community-based nurse practitioners addressing health disparities among vulnerable populations. International Journal for Human Caring. 2005;9:43-50.
All electronic documents accessed May 15, 2011.