In chronic pain management there seems to be a pretty consistent pathway for people to finally get to interdisciplinary treatment. First a referral from the primary care physician or GP to one or more specialist medical people – maybe an orthopaedic surgeon, or a rheumatologist, or a psychiatrist, or a neurologist. This person will carry out investigations, get the results, make a determination that the problem is “not theirs” – and suggest some kind of management, or a referral to another kind of orthopaedic surgeon, or a rheumatologist, or a psychiatrist, or a neurologist… who will repeat the same.
Finally, after many investigations and referrals and consultations, around 3 years later, the person makes it to a chronic pain management centre. (btw I am using those specialties as indicative only – could be other types of specialties too).
Once the person makes it to a pain management centre, there again is a kind of process that typically involves a medical assessment and possibly some intervention (injections, medications), and often a psychosocial and functional assessment.
Finally … the person begins self management. If they’re willing and not searching for another option or “cure”. (Remember, patients have been well-trained by this stage to hope there is something else out there to fix their problem completely.)
Now what if our health system became as plastic as our neurobiological system? What if, as evidence mounts, the pathways to management of chronic pain could change? What if people with pain were given information so they could be informed about chronic pain – and then choose their own “next best step”?
In our own small way, a colleague and I developed a different pathway for people referred to our Centre. We, like so many tertiary pain management centres, have a waiting list. Some people can’t be seen within the Government-determined timeframe of six months and are sent back to their GP. We decided to identify those people and invite them to participate in a new form of programme. Here’s what we did:
- Sent an invitation to attend a chronic pain seminar
- We made it clear there would be no medical management and no individual treatment
- At the seminar, we had a talk by one of our pain physician’s who pointed out the limited options available from a medical point of view, and outlined that chronic pain is a disorder of the nervous system, that there are different kinds of chronic pain, and that hurting doesn’t mean there is ongoing damage.
- We then invited participants to consider attending a six week, two hours a week, group programme
- The programme included all the usual pain management information and strategies but was delivered in a mini-lecture format, with a workbook that included home learning activities each week.
- The programme was conducted by two occupational therapists and one physiotherapist, with the doctors involvement only at the seminar.
The numbers attending this pilot approach were quite low – a combination of winter, earthquakes, and the usual problems people with chronic pain have with transport, readiness to change, and self regulation. It is, however, a different way of thinking about delivering pain management, and could be one way to help people access self management for their pain. Because otherwise? They could very well continue the cycle of referral to one or more specialist medical people, more investigations, more inconclusive results, more decisions that the problem is “not theirs” – and more referrals… All the while that person and the person’s family are living in limbo.
It’s a little radical – changing the way we deliver health to side-step the wait to access self management. But what we tried to do is not the first, nor the only way to do this.
Davies, Quintner and colleagues (2011), in Western Australia, have published this study examining the effects of a brief, group-based self management programme, delivered to people before they see a specialist, with any ongoing consultation initiated by the patient. Wow! Now that’s different.
Their programme was only slightly different to ours: six-session program run over 2 days led by clinical psychologists, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, and pain medicine physicians to impart their knowledge and to share skills.
Their aims were: (i) a reduced demand for individual new case outpatient appointments; (ii) reduced clinic waiting times; (iii) increased efficiency of clinic utilization with reduced unit costs; and (iv) improved patient outcomes and satisfaction.
Is this what they achieved? In their own words: preclinic group education for patients with persistent pain attending our Pain Medicine Unit reduced the overall unit cost per new patient and decreased the new to follow-up ratio of attendances, reflecting the increased number of new patients appointed and reduced need for follow-up appointments. This resulted in significantly reduced waiting times for new patients to access the pain units while increasing the total number of individual patients seen.
Working in a large, tertiary pain management service within a large health service organisation can mean change is S L O W! Organisations just don’t change that fast, health delivery culture is conservative at best and stagnant at worst, and there still is a focus on a biomedical model in many centres. This can get in the way of responding quickly to emerging needs, or thinking about different ways to conduct business. Innovation is not always supported.
While our small project was too small to indicate whether it would be helpful or not, this one in Western Australia supports our approach. And, for what it’s worth, I’m not sure that the specific clinicians delivering it, or the timeframe it was delivered in, are particularly significant. It’s the concept of offering self management before medical management, and patient-initiated appointments for any further input. Now that’s responding to need – a health system with plasticity!
Davies S, Quintner J, Parsons R, Parkitny L, Knight P, Forrester E, Roberts M, Graham C, Visser E, Antill T, Packer T, & Schug SA (2011). Preclinic group education sessions reduce waiting times and costs at public pain medicine units. Pain medicine (Malden, Mass.), 12 (1), 59-71 PMID: 21087401