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Propofol: Will It Become Over-Regulated?

I enjoyed NYC Dr. Kent Sepkowitz’s column in Slate the other day — Paging Dr. Feelgood — where he recaps the careers of some celebrity docs and tries to imagine the pathway to enabling addicts. Key part:

In a strange way, I actually stand in awe of these guys. I have taken care of a few celebs in my career, and for me it was an awful experience. If you f*ck it up, you’re toast. Once I took care of a very important person, a person you have heard of and are very interested in, someone you would be shocked to know had the problem—asthma—that I treated him for. Well, almost treated him for. His complaints and his recollection of near death last time he had the identical symptoms so unnerved me that I asked a colleague to assume his care.

But the Dr. Feelgood experiences no such hesitancy… Perhaps it all starts innocently—a rich, famous guy with a tiny problem walks into the office. He can’t sleep at night. He’s so friendly, sincere, not stuck up like some celebs. Then he comes back a week later because of a sore ankle, wanting a little codeine and bearing an autographed photo or a CD. Other patients notice and figure you must be a pretty good doctor if Mr. Showbiz is coming in….

I once wrote about that concern over VIP complaints, in a medscape column. And, like the author, the only thing that impresses me about these celebrity docs is their creativity — Sepkowitz describes how the first Dr. Feelgood used solubilized placenta. And, while the risks of propofol dosing are drummed into our heads in training, it never occurred to me a doctor-to-the-stars might use propofol outside the hospital on an unmonitored patient.

While it didn’t surprise me that propofol has been considered in
palliative care
and even implicated in a murder, it turns out propofol (diprivan) abuse and dependency is not unheard of and, as this review by Roussin shows, some IRB actually permitted trials:

Normal healthy volunteers (n = 12) were exposed in a blind fashion to acute bolus injections of 0.6 mg/kg of propofol and to a similar volume of soy-based lipid emulsion (similar to the vehicule of propofol) twice. After these sampling sessions, they were asked to choose which drug they preferred to be injected with. Propofol was chosen by 50% of the subjects, and seemed to have been based on the pleasant subjective effects. In contrast, the choice of placebo (Intralipid®) seemed to have been based on either non-intense subjective effects during the propofol sampling session (increased dizziness, confusion) or residual effects (fatigue) after the sessions. These results suggest that, in some healthy volunteers, propofol functioned as a reward.

…From a psychopharmacologists’ standpoint, propofol shares properties in common with many drugs that are abused. In particular, the onset of the effects of propofol are rapid and this drug makes people ‘feel good’ and feel relaxed [45]. The mood-altering effects of subanaesthetic doses of propofol delivered via an infusion or by an acute bolus injection have been assessed in human healthy volunteers [44,52]. Subjects reported feeling high, lightheaded, spaced out and sedated….

I read up on propofol use a lot a year ago, in preparation for a talk on procedural sedation. At that point I think its only foray into pop culture’s collective consciousness was a poem by Karl Kirchwey called “Propofol” that ran a year ago in the New Yorker. It began:

Moly, mandragora, milk of oblivion:
I said to Doctor Day, “You bring on night.”
“But then,” he said, “I bring day back again,”
and smiled; except his smile was thin and slight.

Now everyone’s talking about propofol. The ASA is using this opportunity to reintroduce talk of restricting propofol to their specialty alone (despite abundant and mounting evidence that it’s used safely in ED procedural sedation). Reporters are wondering why propofol administration is not as closely logged as, say, opiates.

All this activity suggests it soon will be. And while keeping this drug out of the hands of abusers and enablers is a worthy goal of regulation, I hope those who’ve demonstrated a safe track record are not prohibited from using this unique medication.

*This blog post was originally published at Blogborygmi*

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