'National Pain Strategy' Report Released

By Pat Anson, Editor

The National Institutes of Health has quietly released a draft copy of its National Pain Strategy, a long awaited report designed to advance pain research, healthcare and education in the U.S.

The report calls chronic pain a “complex disease and a threat to public health” and identifies several areas where physicians and the healthcare system are failing pain sufferers.

“Access to high-quality integrated care based on clinical evidence is hindered by many challenges, including a payment system that does not support optimal care. Pain management often is limited to pharmacological treatment offered by a single primary care practitioner or to procedure-oriented and incentivized specialty care that is not coordinated and not aligned with the best available evidence or expected outcomes,” the report says.

“Even when interdisciplinary care is provided, creating and executing a care plan is often fragmented, with poor communication among clinicians and without consideration of patient preferences. The clinician or team’s choice of therapy may be based on practice experience or on insurance coverage, rather than one informed by a comprehensive pain assessment, clinical evidence or best practices.”

The report only briefly addresses the controversy over the abuse and diversion of opioid painkillers, and how some pain sufferers are being denied pain medication by their doctors and pharmacists.

“The reluctance of many clinicians to prescribe these medications, and patients’ concerns over stigmatization associated with opioids may jeopardize quality pain control in the population. Only a small percentage of practitioners and patients account for the majority of opioid-related risk through abuse of prescribing privileges and inappropriate management of prescriptions,” the report said.

Other key findings of the report:

  • People with pain are too often stigmatized in the health care system and in society, which can lead to delayed diagnosis, misdiagnosis, and bias in treatment.
  • Significant barriers to pain care exist, especially for populations disproportionately affected by pain.
  • Although pain is widespread in the population, research is lacking on the prevalence, impact, and outcomes of most common chronic pain conditions.
  • Significant improvements are needed in pain management practices.
  • Primary care doctors are not sufficiently trained in pain assessment and treatment.  
  • Greater collaboration is needed between primary care doctors and pain specialists.

“I agree that collaboration between primary and pain specialists is helpful in some cases, though I do not believe it is mandatory,” said Celeste Cooper, a retired nurse and patient advocate who reviewed the report.

“To think that a primary physician cannot complete continuing education courses for management of mild to moderate chronic pain is ridiculous. Primary physicians are on the front lines. They will be held accountable for prevention strategies, but they aren’t able to make assessments for treating pain? This seems like tying their hands behind their backs.’

The National Pain Strategy is an outgrowth of the 2011 Institute of Medicine report, “Relieving Pain in America,” which found that 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain.

One critic of the new report says it lacks vision and will not make pain care better.

 “I think the report reflects that it has been developed by (and for) special interest groups who are not very skilled at planning or project management. This report is ungainly and lacks a real focus -- and so I think people in pain will be wondering what exactly they can expect to be different and better for them,” said patient advocate David Becker in an email to Pain News Network.

“I think it is unethical for special interest groups to assume that any and every individual in pain cannot be cured and should not receive stem cell therapy or other curative/regenerative care. In this regard, it reinforces the received view -- and a self- serving view -- that people in pain should be treated indefinitely by medical care."

While not perfect, Cooper said she was encouraged by the report's recommendations.

"Looking at chronic pain as a public health issue is the right approach in my opinion. It will avail resources that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible. The report is comprehensive, there will be roadblocks in implementing all the suggestions, but hopefully generations to come will benefit. As an educator, I was impressed on seeing short-term to long-term goals. This strategy provides a mechanism for reassessment and revision," Cooper said in an email.

The Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee is accepting public comments on the National Pain Strategy until May 20, 2015.

Comments can be emailed to NPSPublicComments@NIH.gov.