Doctors and Pain Patients Often Disagree on Goals

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you’ve ever felt that you and your doctor are not on the same page when it comes to treating your chronic pain, you’re not alone.

A small study published in The Clinical Journal of Pain found that disagreements between primary care physicians and patients over priorities in pain management are common. Patients generally hope to reduce pain intensity and identify the pain’s cause, while physicians aim to improve physical function and reduce the side effects of opioid pain medication, such as dependency.

"We wanted to understand why discussions about pain between patients and doctors are often contentious and unproductive," said lead author Stephen Henry, MD, an assistant professor of internal medicine at University of California Davis.

"Primary care physicians treat the majority of patients with chronic pain, but they aren't always equipped to establish clear, shared treatment goals with their patients."

The study involved 87 patients receiving opioid prescriptions for chronic musculoskeletal pain and 49 internal or family medicine physicians at two UC Davis Medical Center clinics in Sacramento, California. In most cases, the patients were seeing their regular physicians. Patients receiving pain treatment as part of cancer or palliative care were excluded from the study.

Immediately following clinic visits between November 2014 and January 2016, the patients completed questionnaires to rate their experiences and rank their goals for pain management. The physicians also completed questionnaires about the level of visit difficulty, along with their own rankings of goals for the patient's pain management.

Nearly half of patients (48%) ranked reducing pain intensity as their top priority, while 22% said finding a diagnosis was most important to them. In contrast, physicians ranked improving physical function as the top priority for 41% of patients, while reducing medication side effects was most important for 26 percent of them.

Physicians also rated 41% of the visits with pain patients as "difficult" -- meaning their interactions were challenging or emotionally taxing. Primary care physicians usually rate about 15% of patient visits as difficult.

One surprise finding was that patients rated their office visits as fairly positive, even when their doctor did not. That may reflect the fact that patients tend to have positive relationships with their regular physicians, even though they don't always agree with them..

“Another possibility is that patients and physicians may not have realized that they prioritized different goals, because goals were not explicitly discussed during the visit. Some patients may assume that their treatment priority and their physicians’ treatment priority are the same, even when they are not,” Henry wrote. “Disagreements about goals may only become relevant during visits where patients and physicians disagree about treatment plans (e.g., whether to prescribe opioids).”

Henry says primary care physicians may have adapted to recommendations such as the CDC opioid guidelines, which emphasize functional goals and avoidance of long-term opioid therapy. Patients have yet to adapt to the guidelines and are still primarily interested in pain relief.

What can be done to help doctors communicate more effectively with their pain patients?

Henry recommends communication training for primary care physicians to ensure that patients are more aware of their goals. "It is critical for doctors and patients to be on the same page and not working at cross purposes," he said.