This is the first in a series of profiles of the 2017-18 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.
Opioids. Substance abuse disorder. Pain. It’s a story that is all too familiar, and one that science journalist Teresa Carr knows well.
Carr spent the past five years working for Consumer Reports, where she wrote about medications as part of a grant-funded position. Her reporting focuses on prescription opioid medications, such as Vicodin. While doctors often prescribe these drugs for chronic pain, she said, there is a lack of information about how — or even whether — a patient should use them.
“We have a big problem in public education in this country,” she said.
Carr, who is based in Austin, Texas, is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this year as a Knight Science Journalism fellow, and although she said she was not sure if her writing during the program would focus on prescription pain pills, it’s clear that it is a subject she’s passionate about.
Between sips of coffee at a café in Cambridge, she shared facts about the opioid prescription problem in the country. It’s a subject that makes people angry, she said, adding that some of the comments she gets on some of her articles about prescription pain medication are hostile and vulgar. “As I talk to people,” she said, “I realize there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about how opioids work.”
People often wind up taking opioid painkillers longer than they should, she said, adding that recent research has shown that 6 percent of people who have surgery are still taking opioids three months after the procedure.
While opioid drugs work well at first, people quickly develop a tolerance to them so that eventually the drugs provide little relief, if any. But by that point, it’s hard to stop taking them without suffering severe withdrawal symptoms, including worsening pain. Emerging research suggests that many people can get relief from longer-term pain without opioid treatment.
“I will tell you it’s a really hard sell. People get very, very angry when you tell them that,” she said. At Consumer Reports, Carr wrote about non-opioid treatments for pain, including the magazine’s cover piece on back pain. She also did an award-winning series on antibiotic resistance.
It was a “really difficult challenge” to explain antibiotic resistance for the public and inform readers about how it affects local communities, hospitals, the food supply.
Her position was funded by a grant created as part of a multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabepentin). But the money is beginning to dry up, which made it a good time to apply for the Knight program.
It’s an “incredible opportunity,” she said, and she’s looking forward to working with people in the program and taking classes at local universities.
“I just think it’s good for everyone to take a breath and ask yourself what is it that you can learn,” Carr said.