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APS Calls for Pain Management Funding

Real World Health Care concludes its series on pain management with an interview with David Williams, PhD, president of the American Pain Society (APS). Dr. Williams is Professor of Anesthesiology, Medicine (Rheumatology), Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Michigan, where he also serves as the Associate Director of the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, co-director of Research Development within the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research (MICHR), and is on the senior faculty of the Neurosciences Program.

The APS is a multidisciplinary community that brings together a diverse group of scientists, clinicians and other professionals to increase the knowledge of pain and transform public policy and clinical practice to reduce pain-related suffering. APS was the first multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to pain science and the practice of evidenced-based pain care.

Research Priorities

Real World Health Care: What are the APS’s priorities in terms of pain management research?

David Williams, PhD, American Pain Society

David Williams: Pain is complex. No one view point is likely to capture such complexity.  The APS values interdisciplinary collaboration demonstrated by respect for the value of diverse views and perspectives among professionals. Our society is composed of professionals from the basic sciences who examine pain mechanisms at the level of neurons and neurotransmitters. We’re also pharmacologists exploring and developing new drugs for pain. We’re psychologists, occupational therapists, nurses, and physical therapists working to refine behavioral, psychosocial, patient-centric, and self-management approaches to pain. We are clinical and translational researchers developing and implementing multi-modal forms of treatment into real-world settings. And we’re public policy experts working to improve options for pain care at systemic levels. As a society we try to facilitate the broad-based work of our members while encouraging collaboration across disciplines.

RWHC: Can you provide an example or two of recent or current pain management research programs you are supporting or have supported? Why are those research programs so impactful?

DW: The Annual Scientific Meeting and the Society’s Journal of Pain are the two best sources to witness APS’s commitment to the dissemination of evidence supporting multidisciplinary pain care. APS also financially supports the research of many of its early career professionals in the form of the Rita Allen Foundation Award for Pain (basic science), the Future Leaders in Pain award (in part supported by the MayDay Foundation), and through contributions to the APS Pain Research Fund. This past year, the APS also partnered with Pfizer to offer a grant program focused on learning and change that will help support the implementation of aspects of the National Pain Strategy.

Research and Clinical Challenges

RWHC: What are some of the biggest challenges facing pain management researchers and how are those challenges being addressed?

DW: Funding is always a big challenge for a society focused on research. Annually, the APS meets with leadership at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and with the inter-institute leadership of the NIH Pain Consortium. The needs of societal members are expressed, thematic research discussed, and challenges in grant review presented. There is also a need for pain to be viewed as an important national research priority. Currently many APS members have been invited to participate in the creation of the Federal Pain Research Strategy (FPRS), a document which will serve as a blue print for pain research across Federal agencies.

RWHC: What are some of the biggest pain management challenges facing clinicians, and how are those challenges being addressed?

DW: One big challenge is that as a field, we do not have great treatments for chronic pain. More research is clearly needed. An honest appraisal would suggest that we offer modest benefit for most. Complicating the problem is that relatively more beneficial approaches, such as multi-disciplinary pain care, are difficult to implement both logistically and financially. As such, it is rarely seen in practice. Currently there is research underway to study how best to implement evidence-based approaches in routine care and at a systems level. Such efforts are supported by APS and by the National Pain Strategy.

Approaches to Pain Management

RWHC: How can clinicians integrate pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical approaches to pain management in their practice?

DW: Optimal care would suggest integration of both pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches to pain management. Optimal care would also include a patient-centric approach to care where the patient and provider share decision making about what medications and what non-pharmacological approaches will be utilized. Evidence exists for many medications and many non-pharmacological approaches. Matching the available approaches to the specific needs of an individual patient, however, is the clinical challenge. Informing both the patient and the provider about evidence-based approaches as well as how best to implement those options at the individual level is an area where additional research and training is needed. This important challenge was highlighted by the National Pain Strategy and has been a focus of the APS in its educational agenda.

Opioid Addiction

RWHC: How is the APS working to address the issue of opioid addiction in this country?

DW: The APS is not a practice guild. It is a Society based upon a valuation of science and evidence. As such, we let evidence guide our position rather than politics. For decades, the APS has gone on record as supporting a multi-disciplinary approach to pain management rather than a mono-therapeutic approach (e.g., a solely opioid-based approach). Opioids may or may not have relevance to the care of a given individual and should be viewed in the context of an entire integrated treatment plan designed with input from both the patient and provider. Through the promotion of evidence-based multi-modal care, APS is supporting efforts to find sources of pain relief that go beyond opioids.

Go-To Pain Information Source

RWHC: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about the work APS is doing?

DW: The APS is the unbiased “go-to” information source regarding pain. We are sought out by governmental representatives, industry, academia, and patient advocacy groups. We support the early careers of young pain scientists and serve as a home for senior scientists, clinicians, and public policy experts interested in changing how chronic pain is managed. Our members have participated in the development of important documents such as the IOM report “Relieving Pain in America,” the “National Pain Strategy”, and the forthcoming “Federal Pain Research Strategy.”

RWHC: How did you get involved in the field of pain management? What continues to inspire you about this field?

DW: Over the years I have studied pain from the perspectives of a basic scientist, a clinical/translational researcher, and currently a clinical trialist. Our understanding of pain continues to evolve and with each finding, new questions arise.  It has been both challenging and rewarding to participate in the study of pain. It is also rewarding to see the current field of young scientists taking interest in this topic and taking fresh approaches to problems my generation was not able to solve.


Assessing Chronic Pain

Our series on Pain Management continues this week with insight on how clinicians assess chronic pain. We spoke with Bryan Jensen, PhD, a clinical health psychology postdoctoral fellow at the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System, where he treats inpatients and outpatients with chronic pain as well as facilitates primary care chronic pain recovery groups. Dr. Jensen recently graduated with his doctorate in clinical psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he focused his clinical and research work serving patients with chronic disease in both inpatient and primary care populations, most notably underserved patient populations and those with high levels of co-morbidities.

Bryan Jensen, PhD, VA Salt Lake City Health Care System

We asked him about his recent Translational Behavioral Medicine article on chronic pain assessment within a translational framework and the challenges facing researchers and clinicians who are studying and treating chronic pain.

Real World Health Care: Can you provide a summary of your recent article in Translational Behavioral Medicine?

How Chronic Pain is Assessed

Bryan Jensen: As researchers and clinicians seek to treat pain, we first need to understand if we are assessing pain accurately. The article is a review of how pain is assessed across the translational continuum. It starts by exploring the basic science of animal models of pain and the types of methods used in that setting to assess pain. Clearly, these methods are not the same methods we use in clinical practice — a rat is not the same as a human — but they must translate. We are starting to understand that older models of pain assessment may no longer be adequate, so we are looking at newer models and seeking to determine a more accurate definition of pain across clinical and research settings. Other translational issues are outlined with a focus on how providers are using pain assessment tools and how they can implement newer evidence-based tools for more evidence based assessment.

The article points to three main areas that hold promise to bridge current gaps. One is using computer adapted technologies to obtain self-reported measures of pain. Because we can’t take a “thermometer reading” of pain, we rely on patients’ assessments. But pain is multi-dimensional, and asking patients to go through a 100-question survey is daunting and time-consuming, so scientists have developed computer programs that evaluate how patients respond to clinicians’ questions and adapt those responses so clinicians can more efficiently and effectively get the information they need. The NIH has been rolling out these tools over the past decade.

The second promising area is lab-based, for example, using a blood draw to look for proxy measures of pain. This is more of a downstream method to assess the patient. These tools still require further research to understand how to directly translate into clinical practice.

The third promising area is observational. In animal models, we poke a rat and watch its response. With very few exceptions — such as needle prick tests for diabetic neuropathy — we’re not going to go poking human patients. But there are observation-based methods that allow clinicians to accurately measure pain and pain behaviors. For example, the University of Alabama at Birmingham developed a pain behavior scale. Unfortunately, it isn’t widely used, even though it has demonstrated excellent validity in terms of helping providers easily and quickly measure pain and pain behaviors like grimacing, holding one’s back, and limping. It really does an excellent job giving a complete picture of a patient’s experience.

Effective Pain Treatment

RWHC: What are some of the important implications for patients and for the field of pain management?

BJ: The whole point of accurate pain assessment is to allow for more effective treatment. If patients are more aware of various pain assessment methods, they can advocate for themselves and request clinicians to widen their scope of assessment. Informed patients always help the clinical process.

The goals are improved assessment and treatment, which would lead to better patient care, higher patient satisfaction, and a reduced burden on patients, their families, and our nation. Economically, the cost of chronic pain is over $600 billion a year. If we can chip away at that, we would be making a huge impact.

Challenges and Opportunities

RWHC: What are the biggest challenges facing researchers when it comes to studying pain assessment, and how can those challenges be overcome?

BJ: From a research perspective, there’s less emphasis on assessing pain than there is on treating pain. The main challenge is a financial one, with fewer research dollars dedicated to studying pain measurement. Another challenge is a theoretical one. There’s been some exciting, cutting-edge research on neurological measures, focused on neurosignatures that act as a thermometer to measure pain, but there’s been some discord in the field as to whether this is a useful pursuit. We also need better uniformity across the literature in terms of methods and measurement. The Initiative on Methods, Measurement, and Pain Assessment in Clinical Trials (IMMPACT) has been working for well over a decade to develop consensus and establish best practices for measuring pain in clinical trials, but these best practices aren’t always followed.

RWHC: What are the biggest challenges facing clinicians in assessing pain, and how can those challenges be overcome?

BJ: Making clinicians aware of the latest research is a big challenge. I hear lots of clinicians express that they don’t have the training to fully assess and treat pain — especially chronic pain. Many providers approach treating someone with chronic pain with some trepidation as we have seen political, societal, and clinical swings in the use of opiates and other pain medications. Many clinicians will opt to not treat chronic pain or to seek out clinics with non-opiate policies. This is problematic, because the fact is that some patients do benefit from opiates.

We need more focus on early medical training. Medical schools are just starting to employ an integrated approach to pain, by combining the fields of primary care, psychology, pharmacy and social work. Trainees and residents are now being exposed to a broad-based perspective on how to approach and treat chronic pain, but additional course work is needed.

Clinicians also have a practical challenge. Most cases of pain are managed in primary care practices, and these clinicians are time-strapped. They default to the model of assessing pain by asking patients what their pain is on a scale of one to ten without looking at how pain impacts a patient’s functionality and quality of life. Those quality of life measures, like being able to get back to work or play with your kids, are important goals for treatment.

RWHC: What initially attracted you to this field and what continues to inspire you?

BJ: I initially became interested in the field of pain assessment when my daughter was born. She had an early medical condition — which fortunately turned out to be benign— and I was struck by the integrated team at the Shriner’s hospital who cared for her and our family. Since then, I’ve had wonderful opportunities to do clinical work with chronic pain patients. I continue to be inspired by my patients and the impact pain has on their lives. It’s gratifying to help them go from being essentially disabled to the point where they can regain their lives and take part in meaningful activities.