Feds Quietly Release National Pain Strategy

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Friday quietly released the National Pain Strategy, a comprehensive and ambitious “roadmap” to improve the quality of pain care in the United States. The 83-page report was overshadowed by the opioid prescribing guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just a few days earlier.

Development of the National Pain Strategy (NPS) began over five years ago after the Institute of Medicine released a report calling for a “cultural transformation” in pain care, prevention, research, and education. Although the NPS was being closely watched by researchers, academics, regulators and professional societies, many long-suffering pain patients will be surprised to hear the U.S. even has a national pain strategy.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did little to publicize the NPS, issuing a single news release that wasn’t even posted on its own website 24 hours later.  There was no press briefing for reporters to explain why the NPS was developed or what its objectives are.

The announcement wasn't even made by HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, but by a lower ranking aide.

“Chronic pain is a significant public health problem, affecting millions of Americans and incurring significant economic costs to our society,”  Karen DeSalvo, MD, acting assistant secretary for health at HHS, said in the news release. “This report identifies the key steps we can take to improve how we prevent, assess and treat pain in this country.”

The major goals of the NPS are:

  • Develop new methods to prevent and manage pain.
  • Improve pain education of physicians
  • Develop “integrated, interdisciplinary, patient-centered” pain management teams
  • Provide better insurance coverage of pain treatment options
  • Reduce barriers to pain care, especially for stigmatized and underserved populations.
  • Increase public awareness and patient knowledge of treatment options and risks

The 800-pound gorilla of pain management – opioid pain medicine – is only briefly mentioned in the NPS, and not in a positive way.

“Evidence suggests that wide variations in clinical practices, inadequate tailoring of pain therapies to individuals, and reliance on relatively ineffective and potentially high risk treatments such as inappropriate prescribing of opioid analgesics, or certain surgical interventions, not only contribute to poor quality care for people with pain, but also increase health care costs,” the report says.

“Treatments that are ineffective, whose risks exceed their benefits, or that may cause harm for certain subgroups need to be identified and their use curtailed or discontinued.”

“We need to ensure that people with pain get appropriate care and that means defining how we can best manage pain care in this country,” said Linda Porter, PhD, director of the National Institute of Health’s Office of Pain Policy and co-chair of an interagency committee that helped develop the report.

“To achieve the goals in this report, we will need everyone working together to create the cultural transformation in pain prevention, care and education that is desperately needed by the American public,” said Sean Mackey, MD, who heads the Division of Pain Medicine at Stanford University and is co-chair of the interagency committee.

Still unclear is how the NPS will ever be implemented, since it relies on major policy changes and coordinated action involving medical schools, healthcare providers, insurers, government agencies, Congress and the White House. No estimate is provided on how much it will cost or where funding will come from.

“The NPS is riddled with vague terms and objectives -- which render the whole effort too subject to interpretation,” says David Becker, a patient advocate and author of “Quotes on Pain.” “I find it fascinating that despite the outcry from individuals regarding very specific concerns and problems, they are intent on imposing population based public health solutions on individuals. They can’t see the trees for the forest. And their plan is to help some nameless faceless pain sufferers with a very homogenized approach.

“The whole report reminds me of a Seinfeld episode when he says his show is all about nothing. The NPS is about some vague objectives -- even though the underlying philosophy, politics, privileges -- are only too clear. I guess those privileged pain specialists just don’t wish to be pinned down too much about what their pig in the poke is all about.”

The NPS was quickly endorsed by the American Pain Society (APS), a professional group that focuses on pain research.

“The National Pain Strategy gives the nation a blueprint for aggressive action to expand access to effective pain care,” said APS President Gregory Terman, MD. “Pain is a serious and often neglected public health problem that is draining our health care resources. It is responsible for inestimable lost wages, impaired worker productivity, and extracts a tragic personal toll on patients and their families.”  

Terman and several other APS members were involved in drafting the National Pain Strategy, as well as the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines.

“We believe several high impact policy initiatives will emerge from implementation of the National Pain Strategy, especially in helping primary-care physicians, who see that vast majority of pain patients, become more knowledgeable about pain mechanisms, pain assessment, and safe use of analgesic medications,” Terman said.