AMA Defends Dropping Pain as Vital Sign

(Editor’s note: Last week we published a story on the American Medical Association’s decision to support the removal of pain as a “fifth vital sign” in professional medical standards – a move that some believe will make it harder for pain patients to be properly diagnosed and treated. Patrice Harris, MD, Chair of the AMA’s Board of Trustees, sent us the following letter objecting to how the AMA’s vital sign policy was characterized by PNN.)

By Patrice A. Harris, MD, Guest Columnist

The American Medical Association (AMA) unequivocally supports a patient’s right to receive the highest level of compassionate, comprehensive care for his or her pain.  It is unfortunate that the recent actions at the AMA House of Delegates were painted as anti-patient (“AMA Drops Pain as Vital Sign”), when the actual debate was focused entirely on how to ensure physicians have the necessary tools to deliver optimal care to our patients. 

Reducing the stigma of pain and advocating for comprehensive pain care are key recommendations from the AMA Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse – part of our multifactorial plan to ensure that balanced policies are in place to ensure patient’s access to care and promote the best evidence-based pain management practices, while reversing the nation’s opioid misuse, diversion, overdose and death epidemic.

When called for by a physician’s clinical judgment, this includes the use of opioid analgesics as a potential component of individual treatment plans.

Contrary to the claims in the article, however, our new policies complement and further our longstanding advocacy that emphasize the importance of treating each patient as an individual and tailoring care for that individual.



Pain satisfaction surveys, physician satisfaction surveys, even the Joint Commission’s Pain Care standards have not been shown to result in comprehensive improvements in pain treatment or protocols, or improved outcomes, but are clearly motivating forces for opioid prescribing. 

Patients with chronic pain deserve to benefit from the research and scientific approaches as envisioned by the National Pain Strategy, which the AMA strongly supports.  Not a single physician said, suggested, or hinted that anyone should “stop asking patients about their pain” as your recent article suggested.  Perpetrating this baseless, stigmatizing claim does your readers a tremendous disservice and does not reflect the opinions or practice of the nation’s physicians. 

We are well-aware that efforts to reduce the supply of opioids in the United States, without due consideration for unintended consequences and impact on chronic pain patients, have taken firm hold, and that many such patients have experienced disruption in their care and suffered. Many physicians at the AMA meeting decried the stigma that their patients experience. Others highlighted the audits and investigations by law enforcement among their colleagues.  And many noted the importance of treating all physical, psychosocial and behavioral aspects of pain. 

Furthermore, all discussed the importance of effective, evidence-based care, including the fact that vital signs are those that can be objectively measured and quantified. Identifying, treating and managing pain is central to medical practice, but it is not a readily quantifiable physiologic vital sign.  

We recognize that the pendulum has clearly swung too far. We know that the stigma of pain and opioid use has become pervasive, and we believe physicians and patient advocates must work together to restore balance.  But we can’t ignore the fear and stigma that pervades our society – and affects physicians and other health care professionals. We see (and experience) the increased scrutiny by law enforcement and government regulators.

In response, some physicians no longer treat chronic pain or prescribe opioids. But there are committed physicians in every city, town and state who provide the type of compassionate care that our patients need and deserve.  There are many examples of physicians doing all that is necessary to provide the type of complex, thoughtful care that chronic pain patients need. That is the vision we have for pain care in the United States.

We will, always stand up and speak out in support of patients who are in pain. We have done this countless times in Congress, with our state and specialty society colleagues, in front of the National Association of Counties, National Conference of Insurance Legislators, National Governors Association and many other leading organizations. 

We know all too well that pain is the number one reason patients come to us. We will continue to seek all avenues to provide the care our patients need – whether pharmacologic or non-pharmacologic – and insist that insurers cover the multimodal therapies required for effective management of chronic pain. 

The nation’s opioid misuse, overdose and death epidemic has harmed far too many, and the AMA is committed to working to ensure that patients with pain are not among those who must now become innocent bystanders in the regulatory response to this public health epidemic. To suggest anything less is to ignore the body of our advocacy and the mission that is central to our proud history.


Patrice A. Harris, MD, is Chair of the AMA Board of Trustees and Chair of the AMA’s Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse. A practicing psychiatrist based in Atlanta, Dr. Harris has served on the board of the American Psychiatric Association, as President of the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association and as Director of Health Services for Fulton County, GA.

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The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.