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Wednesday Mar 23, 2016

Meet the Press: Why Working With the Media Makes Sense

When I woke up on March 17, I found more than three dozen messages from AAFP members in my voicemail and email. They weren’t calling or writing to tell me Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

The previous evening, The New York Times had posted a lengthy feature story(www.nytimes.com) about the challenge of balancing the need to curb opioid abuse with the need to help patients who have legitimate pain in a primary care practice. That practice, in this case, happened to be mine. A reporter and a photographer spent several days in Milford, Neb., shadowing me, interviewing my patients (and their families) and taking photographs. The result was an excellent, in-depth piece that makes it clear for any legislator, regulator or payer paying attention that this is not a situation that calls for a quick fix. This is a complex problem that will require a well-considered solution. Our patients do not need a one-size-fits-all approach to health care, and our members do not need a government-approved algorithm to determine treatment.

The family physicians who contacted me thanked me for helping tell this important story. Some said it must have been "onerous" to have a journalist in my exam rooms for several days. The reality is that I didn't mind at all, and my patients were eager to tell their stories -- often sharing extremely personal details with The Times and its 2.1 million readers. Nebraska is one of many states taking measures to limit opioid prescribing, and patients with compression fractures, cancer, fibromyalgia and more shared how such limitations will affect their ability to manage their pain and, thus, their ability to function and go about their daily routines.

My patients are not drug seekers but everyday people with their own perspectives on an issue that affects them greatly. They personalized the issue for a wide audience.

After spending a few days with me, the journalist got it. At one point, reporter Jan Hoffman said to me, "These aren't pain patients. They're just patients."

Exactly.

These are people with complex conditions and co-morbidities that are intertwined. Their pain is just one chapter of a much longer book. By sharing these stories we hope people can begin to understand how complicated this issue truly is.

When I met with legislators recently on Capitol Hill, they were eager for a solution to the opioid crisis. "We have to do something" was a frequent refrain. It's true that we have rising numbers of overdoses and accidental deaths, but it also is true that we need a well-developed plan and not a Band-Aid. If we move too rapidly, the complexity of the situation could get lost. We also need to stop pointing fingers at doctors and patients and get to the issue of treating pain effectively.

During her time with me, Jan saw patients dealing with issues like renal failure, heart failure and an array of physical problems. At one point, she asked me, "Is there anything you don't do?" Not only did she walk away with a greater understanding of the opioid issue, Jan also saw the breadth and depth of family medicine.

I'm excited to see such a well-written story with a family medicine perspective in a publication with such a large audience. Our stories -- and also our patients’ stories -- have power and value in our states and communities when we tell them at the local level. Showing your local media and/or your legislators how issues affect family physicians and the families we care for is time well spent.

Robert Wergin, M.D., is Board chair of the AAFP.

Posted at 01:59PM Mar 23, 2016 by Robert Wergin, M.D.

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