Prescription opioid abuse (POA) is an escalating clinical and public health problem. Physician worries about iatrogenic addiction and whether patients are ‘drug seeking’, ‘abusing’ and ‘diverting’ prescription opioids exist against a backdrop of professional and legal consequences of prescribing that have created a climate of distrust in chronic pain management. One attempt to circumvent these worries is the use of opioid contracts that outline conditions patients must agree to in order to receive opioids. Opioid contracts have received some scholarly attention, with trust and trustworthiness identified as key values and virtues. However, few articles have provided a critical account of trust and trustworthiness in this context, particularly when there exists disagreement about their role in terms of enhancing or detracting from the patient–physician relationship. This paper argues that opioid contracts represent a misleading appeal to patient–physician trust. Assuming the patient is untrustworthy may wrongfully undermine the credibility of the patient's testimony, which may exacerbate certain vulnerabilities of the person in pain. However, misplaced trust in certain patients may render the physician vulnerable to the potential harms of POA. If patients distrust their physician, or feel distrusted by them, this may destabilise the therapeutic relationship and compromise care. A process of epistemic humility may help cultivate mutual patient–physician trust. Epistemic humility is a collaborative effort between physicians and patients that recognises the role of patients’ subjective knowledge in enhancing physicians’ self-understanding of their theoretical and practice frameworks, values and assumptions about the motivations of certain patients who report chronic pain.
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