When I was a young doctor, which is now a long time ago, patients who were close to death were often denied drugs like morphine for fear of turning them into addicts during their last weeks of earthly existence. This was both absurd and cruel; but nowadays we have gone to the opposite extreme. We dish out addictive painkillers as if we were doling out candy at a children’s party, with the result that there are now hundreds of thousands if not millions of iatrogenic — that is to say, medically created — addicts.
An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine asks why this change happened, and provides at least two possible answers.
The first is that there has been a sea change in medical and social sensibility. Nowadays, doctors feel constrained to take patients at their word: a patient is in pain if he says he is because he is supposedly the best authority on his own state of mind and the sensations that he feels. This certainly meant that at the hospital where I worked you could see patients, allegedly with severe and incapacitating back pain, skipping up the stairs and returning with their prescriptions for the strongest analgesics to treat their supposed pain. In the new dispensation, doctors were professionally bound to believe what the patients said, not what they observed them doing.
The automatic credence placed in what a patient says — or credulity, if you prefer — is deemed inherently more sympathetic than a certain critical or questioning attitude towards it. And since it is now possible, indeed normal, for patients to report on doctors adversely and very publicly via the internet and other electronic media, doctors find themselves in a situation in which they must do what patients want or have their reputations publicly ruined. When in doubt, then, prescribe.