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National Pain Week 2020: Tackling the big and complex issue of chronic pain

Jul 27 2020

Tackling a health problem as big and as complex as chronic pain is no small feat, however a team of researchers from HMRI and the University of Newcastle are dedicated to easing the burden that pain sufferers experience and changing the way care is delivered through innovation and collaboration.

The Musculoskeletal (MSK) health team, lead by Associate Professor Christopher Williams are a group of physiotherapists, dietitians, health behaviour researchers and communicators who are currently working on a variety of research projects underpinned by the vision of providing exceptional information, care pathways and outcomes for those with chronic pain. 

“With over six million Australians currently experiencing chronic back pain and osteoarthritis, the problem is significant. In fact, chronic pain is the leading cause of disability globally and currently in Australia alone, sufferers are spending approximately $4Billion on treatments including unnecessary surgery and medications, many of which don’t work. Our health care systems are simply not designed to cope with patients experiencing chronic pain and as such many people often don't get the treatment they need to support them”, said Associate Professor Williams.

“Our research over the years has enabled us to gain some incredible insights into the experience that sufferers go through when seeking care for their pain and how they manage it. Many people often feel confused by the amount of information available and the conflicting messages they receive from having multiple clinicians. They feel misunderstood by their clinicians, family and friends which often results in mental health issues and they also feel like there is limited access to good quality care.  We believe there are better ways to support people with pain and we also believe that our team is well positioned to be able to make a significant impact to patients and the clinicians providing the care”.

"One of the ways the team are doing this is through the delivery of a free online program providing evidence based information, tips and resources to better equip sufferers with ways to better understand pain science and management tactics. The pilot program also provides the opportunity to work with Newcastle Performance Physiotherapy via telehealth consultation to help solidify the knowledge and provide support to make changes to the patient's lifestyle that could be impacting their level of pain.  For those who are interested in the program, they can sign up here. "

The online program has been developed in conjunction with Hunter New England Population Health to fill a recognised gap in care delivery and science. Dietitian Emma Robson has been conducting the trials as part of her PhD project.

“The research focuses on how lifestyle factors such as nutrition, physical activity, sleep, mental health, smoking, alcohol and social connections influence pain with the primary outcome looking to improve overall health, wellbeing and mobility of people”, said Emma.    

In addition to this, Physiotherapist and PhD candidate Simon Davidson has recognised the prevalence of people presenting at hospital emergency departments (ED) with low back pain and the impact this has on both the ED and the patient. 

“Most people who go to the ED will have a scan which can sometimes instill more fear and anxiety in an environment or situation that is already stressful for people. In this state, people often don’t fully digest information that is given to them but of course, this problem is two-fold as we know there can be improvements in the way the information is delivered.  My research aims to ease the pressure off the ED by supporting care and follow up of patients who present with back pain. One key initiative is our rapid follow up clinic to ensure patients don't fall through the cracks without a good follow up plan”, said Simon.

With conflicting information being a major pain point for sufferers, physiotherapist and PhD candidate, Priscilla Viana da Silva is looking to make the communication of pain information delivered from clinician to patient easier through her research on the presentation of  ‘myths and facts’. 

“Quite often patients are told both a myth and a fact by the clinician and in most cases, people will remember the myth and interpret it as a fact rather than the real fact.  My research is aiming to understand the best ways to help patients remember health care information to foster behaviour change and create positive patient outcomes”, said Priscilla. 

Physiotherapist and PhD candidate Connor Gleadhill is combining his practice experience and vision to change the traditional approach to research. He is aiming to understand how a community of physiotherapists can collaborate to problem solve and create innovative approaches to care.

“Establishing a network like this has the potential to improve the level of care for many people and enhance how physiotherapists work together across regional and rural communities.  I’m very passionate about supporting clinicians to develop better care pathways and improve outcomes for people in pain”, Connor said.

The team's diversity of experience, skills and areas of focus is paramount to ensuring that the many facets of health care for chronic pain are being put under the lense to uncover improved ways of delivering care to people.  Moreso, the team has a vision to disrupt how research is conducted, applying Startup business methods, digital communication strategies and innovative thinking to challenge the status quo and deliver care more effectively.

Associate Professor Williams said, “We are acutely aware of the enormity of the problem we are trying to solve and in the research industry, there is often scrutiny that the research does not make enough impact to the people that need it most.  However, we use this as a driver to ensure that the research we undertake is solving a real problem, provides real value and puts the evidence into the hands of the public to help them make better health and ultimately help them live healthier, pain-free lives”.