The next new thing


Each week as I sit to write a blog post, I think about what’s been happening in my world and in the world of pain rehabilitation. It struck me this morning that we’re often a bit like “Ooooh! Shiny!” with new toys and techniques and research to read… yet as so many people point out, the old biopsychosocial (sociopsychobiological) framework doesn’t seem to have seeped down very far, particularly when we look at undergraduate training about pain. It’s like an abstract concept until we meet face-to-face with how poorly our original training sets us up for complexity and messiness.

And clinical work is inherently complex, ambiguous, emergent. We work with incomplete information. We pin our hopes upon asking questions about what we hope the problem is, take histories from people who don’t know what we want to know about, use assessment techniques that are full of measurement error and attempt to derive a pattern amongst the noise so we can give the person a name for what is wrong. And we need this label so we know, the person knows, the funding agency knows – what to do next.

What might our training teach us to do? Under the pressure of cramming an enormous amount of information about normal and abnormal function, our training may teach us to quickly discard uncertainty so we can answer the examiner’s questions promptly. We are possibly led towards a linear, time-constrained interview process where people present as neat problem lists, and where uncomfortable imprecision, particularly with respect to – ewwww! – feelings, thoughts, beliefs, family relationships, mental health, drug and alcohol use, coping strategies – yes all those things inside Pandora’s box – is put aside to focus on the real, physical problem we can do something about.

I think this kind of process sets us up to constantly seek the next new thing. We’d like to know that something will work for people who we know, once we start working in the real world, just don’t conform to our diagnostic boxes. Secretly perhaps we’re hoping there will be some wand or sparkle dust that will turn pumpkins in royal coaches, Cinderella into a beautiful, smart, and endlessly compliant patient who gets better within time frames!

While our training might be, in part, responsible for this tendency to seek simple and shiny and new, perhaps the problem goes deeper than this. Perhaps it’s about who we choose to recruit in training – the straight A students who seem to get along with people reasonably well, and who don’t have “problems”. Perhaps it’s also about our post-graduation training (CPD) opportunities – largely fueled by the need to “show evidence” of ongoing learning – that primarily focus on simple techniques that can be taught in a weekend.

What does working with ambiguity look like? Are there models of treatment in healthcare where being OK with not knowing, perhaps discovering together with the person coming for help, where we can feel safe enough to say “I’m not ready to do anything to you until I’ve got to know you better”, or better still “I’m not ready to work with you until we’ve got to know each other better”.

What would it take to reveal some of yourself in the same way we expect our patients to? And what would that do to our relationship dynamics? And the sense of who has power and who doesn’t? Could we challenge our assumptions about who the expert is?

If we adopted a sociopsychobiological model, we might need to begin by acknowledging the complexity of human relationships. Starting with acknowledging that macro influences on assumptions we take for granted – and recognising the similarities and differences between people. We might prioritise learning about social systems, law, folkways and mores, “in” groups and “out” groups and how they work, and even review our beliefs about socio-economic status and why people might not prioritise their health.

Then we might need to reflect on psychological aspects of ourselves and others. That we have a finite amount of room for processing information so we use heuristics that reduce cognitive demand but also reduce what we pay attention to. That we, too, have emotions and assumptions and beliefs about how good we are as clinicians, and what it’s like for the other person to see us strutting our stuff.

And of course, the biological aspects underpin everything – our skin-covered anti-gravity suits through which we view the world. Still there. Still important, but filtered through the social and psychological.

Would this reduce the temptation to look for the next shiny new thing? I’m not sure – but it might broaden the range of shiny new things we’d look at. Perhaps we might become so fascinated by the sociopsychological that we’d recognise there is far more influence on what people do in these domains than we are currently trained to notice. And maybe we’d be a little less enamoured of the toys so temptingly offered at weekend workshops.

5 comments

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, I myself am an intellectual, once fascinated by the anatomy and how to handle it to care for others, yet also a sufferer, as human as anyone else. To make sense of pain we must go beyond the biology, as a sufferer’s world can lack the rationality yet is wealthy of sense, which creates the thinking and thus their filtered world that you have described. We as practitioners must make sense of pain through an integrated sensory approach, removing its popular metaphor of harm and introducing its undervalued need of deep attention for its message to come out.

    1. Whatever that message may be – often it is as simple as “I’m bored” or “Don’t bend over so far when you haven’t been doing it for a long time”. Sometimes it’s something more subtle like “You’ve been sitting for AGES, get up and move will ya?!” or “Did you know you were carrying your handbag on the same shoulder all the time, and it’s heavy!”
      I don’t believe in repressed memories or emotion stuff underlying persistent pain (no-one has shown a causal relationship between emotions and the onset of pain, except an indirect one from low mood/anxiety and greater awareness of bodily symptoms) but I can certainly see the relevance of understanding that any one of us could be in the same situation as the person across from us.

  2. Thanks for this interesting comments!
    Working with people in chronic pain is certainly challengful.
    Sometimes I feel that I need to create more comprehensive tool to work with my clients and to help my colleagues to better work with them.

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