How primary care should manage chronic pain patients

In April 2010 the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) published updated guidelines for the management of chronic pain. The guidelines were based on a review of recent scientific evidence as well as a survey of expert opinion. As I read through the guidelines, summarizing the efficacy of various therapies for chronic pain ranging from epidural injection to medication management, some of my most challenging clinical cases involving pain management came to mind.

The assessment of pain is recognized as integral to the care of every patient to the extent that pain, similar to blood pressure, is assessed at every encounter as a “vital sign” on a scale from 1 to 10. Reports of the “under-treatment” of pain by doctors are prevalent in the literature. Yet at the same time physicians are increasingly fearful to prescribe some therapeutic options, mostly chronic narcotics, because of the regulatory and legal concerns intrinsic in prescribing these medications, and because of their addictive potential.

The advent of Pain Medicine as a specialty in the past several decades has had a beneficial impact for the management of patients with chronic pain, but the reality is that most of these patients continue to be managed largely by their primary care physicians.

I remember the harrowing case of a patient in her thirties who was my patient. She had chronic abdominal pain, had been through unending diagnostic tests, referrals to pain centers and subspecialty consultation. In the end, I was left to manage her symptoms and had her on a multimodal regimen that included chronic narcotics. One weekend I received a call for the county coroner. This mother of five had been found by her husband dead from a presumed overdose. As it turned out, unbeknownst to me, she had recently visited a new pain clinic and was prescribed additional medications, which she had added to what I was already prescribing.

Another patient, a respected professional, after many years of caring for her and a good doctor-patient relationship, forged a prescription that I wrote and was caught at the pharmacy where arrest was threatened. On returning to me she was tearful and afraid that I would no longer care for her. I did, and she went on to come off of her chronic narcotics until she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer a year later, the diagnosis of which was possibly delayed given her long history of bone disease and chronic pain.

It is the impact of cases like these that cause physicians to question themselves, in a stare down with the Hippocratic Oath, “first do no harm,” and result in their reluctance to manage chronic pain. To a primary care physician the pain clinic might seem like an ideal solution. Similar to an anticoagulation clinic (for the management of patients on warfarin) the pain clinic would take over pain management, including the prescribing of medications, and provide a systematic approach, allowing primary care doctors to obviate themselves of this risky aspect of patient care.

The reality is, however, that there are currently too few pain centers to handle the numbers of patients with chronic pain. Moreover, the consultative and drug monitoring aspect of pain management is not nearly as lucrative as the procedural aspect of pain management. The result is that many pain centers act as a consult services, making initial treatment recommendations, including the assessment of whether a patient is a suitable candidate for a therapeutic procedure, but send the patient back to their primary care doctor for the ongoing medication prescribing and management. It’s rare that the patient is cured after the pain clinic consultation, and so begins the back and forth, trial and error process, as the primary care doctors picks up the management and tries his or her best to advocate for the patient.

In primary care we have a lot of work to do. This is highlighted by the fact that in my 12 years of clinical practice within an 18-member group of academic general internists we had no practice-wide strategy or protocol for managing patients with chronic pain issues. Though a variety of pain contracts had been proposed for implementation during the course of my employment within this group, we could never settle on one to adopt. Some of this seemed to occur as a result of insufficient time to develop a process for a systematic practice approach to pain management. However, there was also general acceptance of the view that each physician had his or her own unique style and standard, the art of medicine. Nonetheless, I think the lack of systemization led to cross-coverage issues and increased risk for both patients and physicians related to inconsistency in practice.

What is the answer? In my view chronic pain, similar to other chronic conditions, is best managed by a patient’s primary care physician within the context of a “medical home.” There needs to be more standardization of processes and protocols within primary care practices, with clear pathways of communication back and forth with procedural specialists, opportunities for group support for patients, and linkages to physical rehabilitation and psychological support services.

However, the development and management of such programs within the context of primary care will require more support from our healthcare system. Similar to other chronic health conditions, fee-for-service based reimbursement for primary care office visits at current rates is not adequate to support the care coordination necessary to deliver the highest quality and safest care to our patients.

Juliet K. Mavromatis is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Dr Dialogue.

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