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Five critical skills for pain clinicians


I could be wrong: it might be seven or ten, but five is a good start. What do people working with those who have pain really need to know/do? What makes them effective? What keeps them positive in the face of what can be an extraordinarily demanding work?

  1. Effective listening skills, along with the ability to communicate that you’re listening. One of the most common complaints about health professionals made by people living with pain is that they don’t listen (Allegretti, Borkan, Reis & Griffiths, 2010; Stenberg, Fjellman-Wiklund & ahlgren, 2012).  While I’m sure there are some clinicians who deliberately protect themselves from engaging in a patient’s distress, I think there’s probably a more insidious version of this – some research shows that when patients report pain, physicians spend more time on technical tasks and less time helping the person actively participate in their own care (Bertakis, Azari & Callahan, 2003).  There’s also some research showing that when clinicians are trained in specific techniques for expressing empathy, patients believe they are more caring (Bonvicini, Perlin, Bylund, Carroll, Rouse & Goldstein, 2009). Physicians were trained to use “The 4 E’s” (engage, empathise, educate and enlist), with a particular focus on communicating that they had heard what was said. Techniques included rephrasing what a patient said; asking a question to elicit more detail; acknowledging or confirming that the person’s emotions are valid/legitimate; and expressing that he or she had experienced a similar feeling. Maybe it’s time for greater training in these skills for all clinicians working with those who have pain.
  2. Mindfulness skills to help deal with emotions during sessions. I hope I’m not just jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon, but I do think being able to be fully present but not caught up in judging or evaluating your own feelings is a critical skill to maintain openness in a clinical situation. A definition of mindfulness that I quite like is “a process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of non-elaborative awareness to current experience and a quality of relating to one’s experience within an orientation of curiousity, experiential openness, and acceptance” (Bishop, Lau, Shapiro et al, 2004). Being mindful and open allows you to be there for your patient while also making space for yourself. There’s good evidence that mindfulness improves psychological health (Keng, Smoski, & Robins, 2011), and some studies also show that it improves your own communication skills and improves patient satisfaction (Beach, Roter, Kortuis, Epstein et al, 2013).
  3. Case formulation skills. These skills are about pulling your assessment information together in a coherent way so you can generate some testable hypotheses to explain why your patient is presenting in the way they are at this time. To me it’s a waste to conduct assessments and then fail to use that information when you’re developing your treatment plan. And it’s even more of a shame to fail to share that information with your patient. The thing is, there’s often little training given to how to generate a case formulation: it’s got to be based on broad theoretical knowledge fleshed out with the specific information you’ve gathered from your patient. This makes a formulation a unique ideographic set of hypotheses about your patient. I’ve written about case formulations here and here and here.
  4. Superb research reading skills. I don’t think it’s enough to say you’re evidence-based if you’re only using clinical guidelines. I think clinicians need to be critical readers of both qualitative and quantitative research. And I think it’s a crying shame that so much research is hidden behind paywalls. That’s one reason I write so often – I can access research and make it accessible. Of course I’d prefer it if everyone took to reading research, but the cost of doing so is atrocious! And we know that getting into print isn’t always easy, and with the current funding models in tertiary education institutes I think the range and depth of research being published is likely to stay a bit skinny. And until research is widely available for free (remember, authors write for free, reviewers review for free, and much research is published electronically, so where’s the money being spent?) I think it’s going to be tough for clinicians working in private practice. Having said that, even when I was a private practitioner, I always had a subscription to the local medical library – it’s a valid deductible expense.
  5. Effective social media skills. Really? Social media? isn’t that just for people who want to share their food pix? Uh, no. I’ve had the best CPD experiences via Twitter, Facebook, and blogging. Some of the most challenging and thought-provoking discussions occur every day on Twitter. Links to new and emerging research. Links to opinions that make you think. Apps that help you be there for your patients, even when you’re not. Ways to remain in touch with people working in your field from around the world. Is it really a healthcare skill? I think so. Social media allows me to connect directly with researchers, other educators, clinicians, people working in niche fields, people living with chronic pain (the very people I so want to know about). Social media gives people living with pain a voice that can be heard. It allows my niche field to be visible. It has an impact on the general public. If we want chronic pain to be taken seriously by policy developers, and if we want to influence how people living with chronic pain can be heard, then social media is, I think, the way forward. It’s not just me – here’s paper reviewing and with tutorials of applications in medicine and healthcare (Grajales, Sheps, Ho, Novak-Lauscher & Eysenbach, 2014).

This list isn’t exhaustive: what else do you see as critical skills for clinicians working with people who experience pain? Add your thoughts to the list below!

Allegretti, Andrew, Borkan, Jeffrey, Reis, Shmuel, & Griffiths, Frances. (2010). Paired interviews of shared experiences around chronic low back pain: Classic mismatch between patients and their doctors. Family Practice, 27(6), 676-683. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/fampra/cmq063

Beach, Mary Catherine, Roter, Debra, Korthuis, P. Todd, Epstein, Ronald M., Sharp, Victoria, Ratanawongsa, Neda, . . . Saha, Somnath. (2013). A Multicenter Study of Physician Mindfulness and Health Care Quality. The Annals of Family Medicine, 11(5), 421-428. doi: 10.1370/afm.1507

Bertakis, K, Azari, R, & Callahan, E. (2003). Patient Pain: Its Influence on Primary Care Physician-Patient Interaction. Family Medicine Journal, 35(2), 119-123.

Bishop, Scott R., Lau, Mark, Shapiro, Shauna, Carlson, Linda, Anderson, Nicole D., Carmody, James, . . . Devins, Gerald. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(3), 230-241. doi: dx.doi.org/10.1093/clipsy.bph077

Bonvicini, K.A., Perlin, M.J., Bylund, C.L., Carroll, G., Rouse, R.A., & Goldstein, M.G. (2009). Impact of communication training on physician expression of empathy in patient encounters. Patient Education and Counseling, 75(1), 3-10. doi: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2008.09.007

Grajales, Francisco Jose, III, Sheps, Samuel, Ho, Kendall, Novak-Lauscher, Helen, & Eysenbach, Gunther. (2014). Social media: A review and tutorial of applications in medicine and health care. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 16(2), 452-474.

Keng, Shian-Ling, Smoski, Moria J., & Robins, Clive J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1041-1056.

Stenberg, G., Fjellman-Wiklund, A., & Ahlgren, C. (2012). “Getting confirmation”: gender in expectations and experiences of healthcare for neck or back patients. J Rehabil Med, 44(2), 163-171. doi: 10.2340/16501977-0912

4 comments

  1. I think another important thing is acceptance of your patient and where they are and what they are looking for. We need to support our patients as well but often a see posts from clinicians who want their patients to want what they think is best for their patient not respecting what the patient is ready to accept for themselves

    1. I agree – to me that’s key to starting where the person’s at and going at their pace. I think one of the factors in failing to honour where your patient is might be managing your own distress at their experience. What do you think?

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