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Capo Calavà (Messina), September 20-23, 2004

Minerva Anestesiologica 2005 July-August;71(7-8):439-43


language: English

Palliative care. Some organisational considerations

Welshman A.

Sue Ryder Foundation, Rome, Italy


Managing pain effectively is one of the biggest challenges in medicine, let alone when dealing with the dying patient and his family. For palliative care specialists this is a daily challenge. However, “To cure when possible, to give comfort always” is an empty credo if physicians don’t use every weapon in the medical arsenal to relieve the suffering caused by chronic pain. It’s of course the opioids: morphine, heroin, their synthetic derivatives and other narcotics, a class of medications that conjure up visions of drug addiction and narcotic squads. To say that opioids are stigmatised by such allusions is putting it mildly. An unhealthy proportion of doctors and patients alike are afraid to have anything to do with them, even in when facing their final stages of life. This is particularly so in the Mediterranean society . It is here in Italy that an effort must be made to educate both physicians and the general public, an arduous task to change a long standing belief which requires a quick cultural turn around. Those who refuse opioids because they are afraid of addiction, and the doctors who refuse to prescribe them out of fear or pure unwillingness to address an apprehensive attitude on behalf of his patient, need to be better informed. Most misconceptions about opioids have to do with terminology, because words like “morphine, addiction, dependency” and “tolerance” mean entirely different things in popular and medical parlance. Add to this the perceptions and attitudes the patient can have with this terminology which then can have a profound effect on the success or failure of a pain control programme. In fact, most people think that medication such as morphine are only for people who are dying and as a consequence is synonymous with death itself. Is this why Italian physicians are not prescribing morphine even though great efforts have been made recently by the Health Ministry to facilitate prescribing laws and costs? It is worthy of serious consideration. Another important issue faced daily by palliative care physicians is the broad number of chronic conditions which could make use of opioids. Severe cancer pain is the most obvious example of an appropriate use of opioids, but hardly the only one. The North American Chronic Pain Association of Canada (NACPAC) advocates the use of opioids for a wide range of conditions causing severe chronic pain, including lower back pain, inflammatory bowel disease, migraines, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and arthritis.Concerns regarding under treatment of chronic pain have captured the attention of patient advocacy groups, policy makers and scientific organisations. Misconceptions of opioid laws, negative social stigma and lack of valid prescribing alternatives to overcome this , together with paucity of formal provider education confound the issue. Much education needs to be done before opioids will be seen as a safe and reasonable treatment for chronic pain here in Italy.

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