Chronic pain patients offer unique challenges to health care providers. However, they can also be the most rewarding and grateful demographic you will ever meet.
Many such individuals have not so much a love-hate relationship with providers as they approach them with cautious optimism. They arrive at your practice door with suitcases full of trauma, often including that inflicted by others guilty of medical gaslighting — downplaying a patient’s legitimate complaints when no apparent cause pops up immediately in the standard battery of tests.
They have reason for skepticism, yet they hope — if not for a cure, then at least for empathy and a treatment course you both can agree upon. Here are four things for doctors to know about working with chronic pain patients to become lifelines to a population who needs their expertise the most.
1. They’re Eager To Be Heard And Understood
Many chronic pain patients have ridden long and hard in the health care rodeo. They can tell when a provider genuinely cares about their progress versus one who swings by the consultation room for five minutes, offering little besides the standard soundbite advice.
Many of these patients — particularly the female ones — have had other physicians dismiss their symptoms and their impact on their overall quality of life. They’re right to exercise skepticism. Some women have died when emergency room physicians overlook heart attack signs that aren’t the classic “elephant on the chest” many men present.
The bottom line: Listen. Instead of expecting patients to come to you with a checklist of symptoms, ask probing questions. Find out how their experience impacts their overall livelihood. For example, you might inquire, “how frequently do your issues appear? How severe would you rate your pain? Do your symptoms keep you from completing necessary daily tasks? If so, how?”
Spending a little extra time on these patients is not only helpful to the patient – ultimately, the most important part! – but can even help you grow your practice. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced that providers who deliver 20 or more minutes of care management services for patients with two or more chronic conditions could receive an extra $42 per month. That may not seem like much to some at first, but estimates show that professionals with 200 of such patients could bring in an extra $100,000 per year from these services.
2. They’ll Never Stop Looking For Answers
Some health care providers shy away from chronic pain patients because they misinterpret these individuals’ ongoing search for a cure as a commitment to “quack science.” Please remember that many discoveries happened by happy accident. Who would have thought that mold would change infectious disease management forever back in 1920? However, that’s why penicillin now appears on pharmacy shelves.
Keep an open mind and ask your patients about what holistic or alternative therapies they’ve tried and how successful each has been. You might learn valuable tips you can pass on to other patients.
Additionally, you can use such reports to inform your course of care. For example, taking herbs like St. John’s wort can lead to dangerous serotonin syndrome if used in conjunction with antidepressants — ask about supplements before you prescribe.
3. They’re Likely To Comply With Doctors’ Orders
People who claim chronic pain patients exaggerate their conditions for attention couldn’t be more wrong. Most members of this population want nothing more than to lead a normal life. Their limitations frustrate them more than anything else.
Therefore, such patients are more likely to comply with your proposed course of care. However, they might need your expert guidance. Provide realistic, actionable tips instead of generalized advice people might struggle to implement.
For example, your arthritis patients already know that shedding a few extra pounds will minimize pressure on their joints and help them feel better. They might not have a workable strategy for getting dinner on the table for four kids after a 10-hour shift. In such cases, “prescribing” a healthy menu of kid-friendly freezer meals the individual can prepare on their day off and toss in the crockpot before work is far better than an appetite suppressant.
4. They Want And Deserve A Provider They Can Trust
Chronic pain patients need a trusted provider. It’s challenging — but you’ll be rewarded with unparalleled loyalty if you treat them with respect, dignity, patience and understanding.
Many such patients belong to multiple support communities. They frequently discuss their experiences with their providers. Your quality care results in word-of-mouth referrals, often the most trusted way of acquiring new clients.
Most chronic pain patients would liken finding a trustworthy doctor who genuinely listens to their concerns to stumbling across an oasis in a desert. Establishing a reputation as someone who cares keeps your practice in high demand.
Helping Chronic Pain Patients Pays Off
Chronic pain patients offer unique challenges to health care providers. However, they also present unparalleled opportunities for physicians to build their practices and make a genuine difference in other people’s lives. Doctors should educate themselves on the unique dynamics of working with this population and welcome them with open arms.