Pain survey shows decline in patient–GP relationship

Monday, 27 July, 2020

Pain survey shows decline in patient–GP relationship

Australians suffering with chronic pain have reported a worsening in their relationship with their GP and pharmacist over the past two years, according to the National Pain Survey 2020.

More than 1200 people from across the country participated in the annual survey conducted by Chronic Pain Australia — released to mark the start of National Pain Week, which runs from 27 July to 2 August.

When asked to rate how their GP and pharmacist were managing their pain, the average score was 5/10 and 4/10, respectively. These scores were down from previous years.

Year GP pain management (score out of ten) Pharmacist pain management (score out of ten)
2018 9
2019 8 8
2020 5 4

“What we are seeing in this year’s National Pain Survey regarding the relationship deterioration between people living with chronic pain and their GP and pharmacist is very concerning,” said pharmacist and Chronic Pain Australia President Jarrod McMaugh.

“It easily demonstrates that healthcare professionals need to improve their approach towards how pain is managed in Australia and importantly, how people in pain are treated.”

Chronic Pain Australia Executive Director Akii Ngo lives with severe disabling chronic pain. She explained that living with chronic pain can be one of the most debilitating and hopeless things anyone can experience.

“As someone who has lived with it for as long as I can remember, sometimes so severe and so agonising that I’ve been hospitalised for weeks or months at a time, it can be extremely isolating and terrifying, especially without the support of good doctors and health professionals who understand, believe you and want to help. A dedicated doctor can truly make all the difference to your quality of life and hopes for the future.”

In the survey people in pain reported that they often felt unheard, not believed and generally stigmatised when they visited their GP and pharmacist. Being suspected of being a drug seeker was very commonly reported and likely has contributed to the poorer relationships between people living in pain, GPs and pharmacists.

Not surprised by these results, Ngo remarked, “Unfortunately, like many of our community members, there have been multiple times where doctors and other health professionals have actually turned me away because dealing with chronic pain is too complex or ‘too much of a headache’. Some doctors who did want to help stated that, due to certain government regulations or ‘politics’, they were either not able to help or were not comfortable with doing so.”

COVID-19 and managing chronic pain

As well as having a severe impact on Australia’s healthcare system, COVID-19 has also impacted how people in pain manage their conditions and how they interact with healthcare professionals.

“We can’t underestimate the impact COVID-19 has had on people in pain and their interactions with healthcare professionals,” McMaugh said.

“We do recognise our survey was open from 1–31 May, which was an incredibly pivotal four-week period in Australia’s battle against COVID-19. It is no surprise to us that the extra pressure and challenges the pandemic has brought with it would also put pressure on the relationships people in pain have with their pharmacist and GP, but it certainly isn’t the only contributing factor leading to the decline in the relationship between them and their healthcare professionals.”

Support for telehealth

More than half of those surveyed (52%) reported that their pain-management strategy changed during COVID-19 restrictions, with many (69%) utilising telehealth options — 60% said that they feel they have benefited from using telehealth and 59% want to continue using telehealth for their treatment when COVID-19 restrictions are fully lifted. “What we are hearing very clearly from people in pain is that it has been challenging managing their care during COVID-19. It has been difficult accessing the medical professionals they are used to seeing face to face, but the majority are happy with telehealth options and many would like to see telehealth continue in the future as a universal standard option in health care moving forward,” McMaugh said.

McMaugh noted that the condition of many people in pain worsened during COVID-19 because they were not able to access many self-management options that are needed to manage pain levels, such as hydrotherapy, swimming pools, massage therapy, gyms and other physical therapies. Other respondents, however, reported benefiting from self-isolation and working from home arrangements due to the respite it has given their bodies as the pace of everyday life has slowed down.

Important things a GP or pharmacist should do when treating someone living with chronic pain

When asked what the most important thing a pharmacists or GP should do when treating someone living with chronic pain, people said that they just wanted to be treated with kindness, compassion and less suspicion. Stigma from the medical profession remains a critical barrier to optimum care for people living with chronic pain.

McMaugh said the results of this year’s survey should be an opportunity to better understand the barriers and improve the relationship between people living in pain and healthcare professionals, ideally improving how pain is managed in Australia.

“GPs and pharmacists, along with allied health professionals are essential in managing pain, and the survey results should not be used to demonise healthcare professionals but be an opportunity for improvement of relationships and care to better support people living with chronic pain to have quality of life,” McMaugh emphasised.

Results of the National Pain survey are available here.

Image credit: ©

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