Teamwork: Gaps or overlaps?

For many years now, interprofessional/multidisciplinary teams have been considered the best model for delivering pain management. This stems from studies conducted right back as far as J J Bonica in 1944 (Bonica, 1993), and originally referred to teams consisting of several medical specialties. Bonica later initiated a multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary pain programme in 1960, including 20 people from 14 medical specialties “and other health professions”. In 1977, Bonica and Butler classified pain programmes into five groups – major comprehensive multidisciplinary programmes – more than six disciplines and involved in education and research; comprehensive multidisciplinary – four to six disciplines and involved in education and research; small multidisciplinary – 2 or 3 disciplines; syndrome-oriented specialising in single diagnoses; and modality-oriented using a single treatment. There were, at the time, 327 facilities around the world – including New Zealand (The Auckland Regional Pain Service).

Bonica didn’t comment on the team structure of these facilities, nor on the mix of “other health professions” involved. There has been a significant reduction in the numbers of comprehensive pain management centres, particularly in North America since the 1990’s. Fragmented, unidimensional treatment seems to be far more common than integrated multidimensional approaches.

Why might teamwork and structure of teams be important in pain management?

I like this discussion of why interprofessional/interdisciplinary teams might be more effective in pain management than multidisciplinary: “Multidisciplinary teams are unable to develop a cohesive care plan as each team member uses his or her own expertise to develop individual care goals. In contrast, each team member in an interdisciplinary team build on each other’s expertise to achieve common, shared goals. Therefore, it is crucial to indicate that multidisciplinary teams work in a team; whereas, interdisciplinary teams engage in teamwork.”

The argument for interprofessional teams in pain management is that by drawing on a common model of pain, each profession can align their treatments to meet the person’s goals, using a common framework, language and broad principles. But, and it’s a big but, this model depends on mutual trust, respect and time spent together developing a common understanding of each team member’s contributions. This is not something in which many health professionals have much training. For a good discussion of ways to foster good dynamics, Youngwerth and Twaddle’s 2011 paper is a nice place to start.

Why write about this now?

I was prompted to write about this because of a set of questions I was posed by a group of clinicians from another profession. We ostensibly work in a team, under the ACC Pain Contracts which specify a “multidisciplinary” approach. The questions, however, reflected both a lack of knowledge about pain management group programmes, and a lack of respect for the clinical skills provided by the people who deliver the programme I’ve developed. And it’s not the first instance of such behaviour.

I rarely criticise New Zealand healthcare policy, at least not on the pages of this blog. In this instance, though, I think it’s time to point out some of the issues that are present in the way pain contracts are being delivered since late 2016.

For those who’re not aware, ACC is NZ’s only personal injury insurer, owned by the country, with no-fault, 24 hour cover. That means anyone who has an accidental injury in NZ firstly can’t sue, and secondly has their treatment and rehabilitation paid for. Like most personal injury insurance companies, ACC’s main problem is the burden of long-term claims where often the main issue preventing return to work and case closure is persistent pain. As a result, pain services have been provided under ACC rehabilitation policy under a “provider-funder split” model since 2000.

ACC contracts providers to deliver pain management services. These services were to involve a number of designated professions, and these professionals were to be at least two years post-graduation, and to have completed postgraduate education in pain and pain management. And no, I don’t think a weekend course counts as “postgraduate education”. Unfortunately, the remuneration under these contracts is incredibly low. Remuneration rates are pre-determined by ACC, so that occupational therapy and physiotherapy are given one hourly rate, psychologists have a higher rate, and medical practitioners have the highest rate of all. There’s no variation in rates to fund experienced clinicians, so everyone gets the same amount irrespective of skill level. There is little to no allowance for team meetings, and there’s no allowance for screening or reporting included in the funding for the group programme I’ve developed.

Aside from the low funding, there are other concerns for me. There has been no auditing of the providers delivering these services. As a result, large businesses naturally try to maximise profit, employing entry-level clinicians for the contracts. Incredibly challenging for new graduates who have had limited exposure to persistent pain and pain management, and often apply acute pain management principles to chronic conditions. And that risks prolonging disability and exacerbating distress of people needing help.

Secondly, because these are new contracts, with quite different requirements from earlier iterations, groups have had to recruit a great many clinicians. Some of those clinicians presumed, I think, that their professional qualification is sufficient to work with people who have persistent pain. Even if their training had no pain content. ACC considers professional registration to be quite sufficient to practice in this area. While some of these clinicians are very experienced – pain management is not simple, and it is specialised. I have heard of practitioners continuing to use gate control theory as their primary “pain education”. While it’s an advance on being told you have “somatic disorder”, it doesn’t exactly reflect modern pain concepts. Again, using outdated information risks prolonging disability and exacerbating distress in a group of vulnerable people.

Teams to deliver pain contracts were often assembled in haste. Processes of induction, continuing education, developing a common clinical model, knowledge of other professionals’ contributions have all suffered as a result. Multidisciplinary practice is the norm – as one person I know used to put it, it’s “serial monotherapy”. Decision-making processes haven’t been developed, and integrating a clinical model common to all – and therefore abolishing a hierarchical structure – has just not happened. Instead a hierarchical, patch-protecting, and disjointed model where professionals are pitted against one another to gain some kind of dominance is emerging. A far cry from a mutually-respectful, integrated, non-hierarchical interprofessional team environment that research suggests is best for delivering pain management (Gatchel, McGeary, McGeary & Lippe, 2014).

When high value, low cost treatments for persistent pain are under-funded, and when costly yet ineffective treatments such as surgery continue being delivered, it’s the people who most need help who are harmed. I suppose what’s even more concerning is that despite 1 in 5 NZers living with pain lasting more than three months, and ACC claimants representing a small proportion of those living with pain, there is no New Zealand strategy for chronic pain management. People on ACC are, in most ways, rather lucky despite the failings of this contracting system.

The pain contracts could have represented an opportunity for innovation and an expansion of understanding between professions, what has happened instead is a tendency to deliver formulaic, ritualised programmes with gaps and overlaps, as a result of underfunding, poor quality control and both ignorance and power play in some instances.

We used to be world leaders in pain management. We have failed to capitalise on our headstart.  We should do better. We must do better for people living with pain.


Bonica, J. J. (1993). Evolution and current status of pain programs. Journal of Pharmaceutical Care in Pain & Symptom Control, 1(2), 31-44. doi:10.1300/J088v01n02_03

Gatchel, R. J., McGeary, D. D., McGeary, C. A., & Lippe, B. (2014). Interdisciplinary chronic pain management: past, present, and future. American Psychologist, 69(2), 119.

Youngwerth, J., & Twaddle, M. (2011). Cultures of interdisciplinary teams: How to foster good dynamics. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 14(5), 650-654.



  1. Many have thought this, few have committed to saying or better, writing it. I admire your honesty, passion and tenacity in this Dr B.

  2. Bronnie, in your timely article you refer to a “common model of pain”. Could you expand on this phrase as the serious problems to which you are drawing attention could well stem from differing interpretations of such a model?

    1. I think a common model of pain within a team emerges only when team members talk about the people they see with other team members, and together generate a model for the way this group of clinicians and this person can work together. It might vary depending on the clinical backgrounds of the team members, on their preferred approaches to managing pain, on their strengths and probably their vulnerabilities as well. I’ve worked within a CBT framework, and sociopsychobiological one, and an ACT one – using pain research as the foundation for common understandings of relationships between constructs and both the person’s experience and the behavioural manifestations of that experience.

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