Mutual mistrust in the medical care of drug users: the keys to the "narc" cabinet

J Gen Intern Med. 2002 May;17(5):327-33. doi: 10.1046/j.1525-1497.2002.10625.x.


Objective: Caring for patients who are active drug users is challenging. To better understand the often difficult relationships between illicit drug-using patients and their physicians, we sought to identify major issues that emerge during their interactions in a teaching hospital.

Design: Exploratory qualitative analysis of data from direct observation of patient care interactions and interviews with drug-using patients and their physicians.

Setting: The inpatient internal medicine service of an urban public teaching hospital.

Participants: Nineteen patients with recent active drug use, primarily opiate use, and their 8 physician teams.

Results: Four major themes emerged. First, physicians feared being deceived by drug-using patients. In particular, they questioned whether patients' requests for opiates to treat pain or withdrawal might result from addictive behavior rather than from "medically indicated" need. Second, they lacked a standard approach to commonly encountered clinical issues, especially the assessment and treatment of pain and opiate withdrawal. Because patients' subjective report of symptoms is suspect, physicians struggled to find criteria for appropriate opiate prescription. Third, physicians avoided engaging patients regarding key complaints, and expressed discomfort and uncertainty in their approach to these patients. Fourth, drug-using patients were sensitive to the possibility of poor medical care, often interpreting physician inconsistency or hospital inefficiency as signs of intentional mistreatment.

Conclusion: Physicians and drug-using patients in the teaching hospital setting display mutual mistrust, especially concerning opiate prescription. Physicians' fear of deception, inconsistency and avoidance interacts with patients' concern that they are mistreated and stigmatized. Medical education should focus greater attention on addiction medicine and pain management.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anthropology, Cultural
  • Female
  • Hospitals, Teaching
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / therapy
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Substance Abuse Treatment Centers
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / therapy