Empathy Must Be Included in Pain Management Education

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

The National Institutes for Health (NIH) is seeking input on how to improve medical education in the fields of pain management and the treatment of opioid use disorder.

Although the NIH is primarily asking healthcare professionals and researchers to weigh in, comments from the general public are also welcome. The information will be used to update the NIH’s Centers for Excellence in Pain Education, which is developing pain management curriculum for medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy schools to improve how students are taught about pain and its treatment.

If you are a person in pain, or love someone who is, your input is what all healthcare providers should hear. You can see the Request for Information (RFI) by clicking here. The link includes an email address to use to contribute your thoughts.

This is an opportunity to tell the NIH what you would like to see included in pain education, or what needs to be taught regarding opioid misuse or abuse. People often want to be heard. This is the time to let the NIH know what you believe is important to teach all healthcare providers.

Potential educational topics could include:

  • What should be the primary goal of pain treatment

  • The role of empathy, rather than animus, in treating people with pain

  • The power of trust, rather than suspicion and disbelief, in the therapeutic relationship

  • Techniques to reduce the stigma of pain, disability and opioid use disorder


Therapies of the Heart

My comments to the NIH will include some of my strongly-held beliefs, including:

Pain therapy must include compassion. A therapeutic relationship may not be considered mainstream medical treatment, but it is crucial to pain management. It includes acceptance, compassion, listening, respect, encouragement, trust, kindness, patience, and being fully present.

I call these the therapies of the heart. They are simple, yet vital, components of a broad-based approach to treating the whole person.

Too often, people in pain are abandoned by health care professionals, family members, and friends. They need to be supported by all the key people in their lives and treated by medical professionals who are adequately trained.

Education should convey that pain isn't just biological. It is psychological, social, and spiritual. A healthcare professional who treats pain must internalize this concept to provide the most humanistic treatment possible.

The fact that withdrawal does not mean addiction is a concept too few people in healthcare understand. Any education that discusses opioids must make clear the differences between addiction and withdrawal. Providers also must learn that a person who experiences withdrawal is not necessarily addicted.

I will recommend to the NIH that their program require all participants watch Travis Rieder’s TED Talk on opioid withdrawal:

I will also ask that pain management curriculum make it clear that babies cannot be born addicted. The fact that the media commonly uses the phrase "addicted babies" in place of "babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome" only reinforces the misunderstanding of what clinical withdrawal means.

Additionally, education should address misconceptions about people in pain, and how chronic pain affects families and other relationships. Educational content should include a discussion of the losses that accompany chronic pain -- to the person in pain and also to their family members.

Providers need to be trained to understand that pain is personal and individualized; therefore, treatment must be individualized, too. What works for one person may not work for another.


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary, “It Hurts Until You Die.”

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.