Expectations – and communicating


There are times when I look at the research on persistent pain and treatment, and I begin to wonder why I’m still so positive about this field! After all, it seems that although a biopsychosocial or multidimensional framework for pain has been around since the 1970’s, I’m still encountering reasonably recently-graduated clinicians who sincerely believe that whatever treatment they’ve learned is the Bee’s Knees, and Will Truly Fix All Pain. And people who firmly believe that All Pain Is X. Or Y. Or Z. And surely we should do what they say (pay the fee, get the certificate, perhaps even levels 3, 4 and 5!) and the people we see will get completely cured.

Maybe I’m just being a Grinch because it’s coming into Christmas.

Perhaps, too, we’ve all forgotten that treatments for persistent pain don’t happen in a vacuum. The people we work with have first had to recognise that their problem is something they think should be treated. Then they’ve chosen to see someone – and maybe chosen to see us, or been referred to us by someone else. These two steps in treatment response alone make an incredible difference to outcomes.

Imagine if I’m someone who thinks my lumbago is normal, something everyone gets, and don’t see it as something unusual. I might choose not to seek treatment until I’m about to embark on a long trip. I choose to see an osteopath because I think they’re more gentle than a physio (who will only give me exercises), or a chiropractor (who will hurt me!), and I don’t like needles so I avoid acupuncture. I don’t think my problem is serious enough to go see a medical practitioner and besides I think my GP will just send me to the physio.

Now imagine instead that I’m a young woman who loves to dance. I’ve had little niggles in my back before, but last night I got on the dance floor and partied like it’s 1999 (oh, that’s right, we’ve been there, done that!). Anyway I partied the night away until I slipped on some beer on the floor, landed on my butt and now my back is really bothering me. I head to my GP feeling pretty hung over and like I cannot walk because my back is SO sore.

Two reasonably common stories.

Now let’s take a look at a study looking at expectations from people seeking help for chronic pain (persistent pain). Wiering, de Boer, Krol , Wieberneit-Tolman and Delnoij (2018) examined the results of data collected from people with persistent pain. Over 2000 people took part in this study, mainly between the ages of 55 – 64. Most were women, most had been living with pain for a long time (on average 14.9 years). Most (50.7%) obtained treatment intended to reduce or stabilise (27%) their pain, and for many people the pain did stabilise (26%), or reduced to a degree (29.4% + 34% to a lesser degree). BUT, and here’s the thing: 41.8% expected a better result, while 33.3% got a better result than they thought they would.


The killer point is that although nearly 70% of people achieved or did better than they expected, and nearly 40% of patients didn’t expect very much, 30% of people were unsatisfied.

Curiously, there was little relationship between how the clinician communicated and the accuracy of the person’s expectations. It didn’t matter whether the clinicians used shared decision-making, patients felt their outcomes should be better than they were.

BUT importantly, attentive listening, having time available for the person, whether the patient trusted the clinician, and whether the patient thought the clinician had done all he or she could were important predictors of satisfaction.

What points do the authors make about communication and expectations? Well, one is that although communication is important only certain aspects of communication really rated with patients: clinicians thought “instrumental” communication was important. This is things like seeking information, asking questions of the person, asking for consent. Instead what actually helped was “affective” communication: responding to the person’s emotional subtext. Things like taking time to listen, building trust, giving people the idea that the clinician is doing all that he or she can.


There’s a caveat though, and I’ll quote directly “Low scores on the important communication aspects were related to expectations that were too high, while high scores were related to too low expectations. Apparently the perfect level of communication is somewhere in the middle. The relationship between low patient expectations and good affective communication may be a sign that it worries patients if health care providers show too much empathy and therefore come across as concerned.” (p. 6)

What can we do with this information? Well I think we can begin by recognising that helping people establish what’s important to them – what is the outcome they most value – is something often not tabled by us. We think we’re communicating clearly, but maybe not. We should also personalise treatments – help people realise that we’re not just delivering some sort of template or algorithm, but that we’re concerned about their unique needs, wants and lifestyles. We should also be warned that people seeking help from us have very high hopes that we’ll be able to achieve a lot. And of course, if we read the research, we should recognise that in general we don’t have a great track record in persistent pain. Let’s not over-promise!

I think using personalised outcome measures like the Patient Specific Functional Scale or the Canadian Occupational Performance Measure, or Goal Attainment Scaling could help us be more focused on what people want from their treatment. While pain reduction is the ideal – it’s not the only outcome! What point is there to have no pain if you’re still afraid to do things you want to do?

Wiering, B., de Boer, D., Krol, M., Wieberneit-Tolman, H., & Delnoij, D. (2018). Entertaining accurate treatment expectations while suffering from chronic pain: an exploration of treatment expectations and the relationship with patient- provider communication. BMC Health Serv Res, 18(1), 706. doi:10.1186/s12913-018-3497-8

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