Assessing Pain Is Vital

Yes, Assessing Pain Is Vital – Pain Medicine News – June 20, 2016 by Lynn R. Webster, MD

I wrote in a blog last year that efforts to roll back pain as the fifth vital sign are likely to gain traction, despite inaccuracies and flawed thinking.

That is precisely what has happened.

A recent Medpage Today article titled “Opioid Crisis: Scrap Pain as 5th Vital Sign?” lays out similar flawed arguments touted by Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP)

What are these flawed arguments?  

One is to falsely equate the Joint Commission standard to assess pain with a mandate to prescribe opioids. If anyone believes that administering opioids is the sole and automatic response to managing high pain levels, that in itself demonstrates a lack of education, knowledge and understanding. Such a perceived mandate would be a terrible misapplication.

The problem is not the Joint Commission standard but what happens afterward.

This is where the system is failing with inadequate education about assessing and managing pain.

Clinicians should assess and treat underlying disorders that cause pain, and they should work to eliminate the pain, but they should also understand that, for some patients with some types of pain, eradicating all underlying causes or the pain itself may not be possible.

Yet pain must be prioritized and addressed.

To do otherwise puts patients at risk for a host of complications, the most serious of which is the progression to pain as a chronic destructive pathology.

assessing pain as often as vital signs are assessed would seem appropriate. We assess cognitive function, reflexes and laboratory values, none of which are vital signs but are clinically important signs nevertheless

Pain is a symptom; however, it can become a disease when the nervous system changes as a result of it

It is better to assess pain often and regularly and treat it adequately while it is still a symptom, and before it can progress to the point of disease, at which point it will demand chronic management, much like diabetes

Another flawed argument is that we as health care professionals would not use dangerous methods to treat pain if only we could remain ignorant that the pain exists.

Incredible as it seems, this is indeed the argument.

In a letter dated March 28, 2016, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) wrote to the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to claim that asking patients about their pain care could lead to opioid overprescribing.

The HCAHPS questions pertain to how often pain was well controlled and whether hospital staff did everything possible to help control the pain. These are quality improvement measures, and pain control is an important part of quality improvement.

Rational, compassionate in-hospital pain treatment would be better informed by considering the following points:

  • Quality pain control is a critical outcome that must be measured.
  • Quality pain control does not dictate prescribing opioids.
  • Patients should be involved in assessing the quality of their care.

Asking patients about their quality of pain control does not dictate inappropriate care. What evidence there is indicates that satisfaction scores do not correlate with prescribing quantities.

Writing unnecessary opioid prescriptions in pursuit of greater financial reward is unethical.If scores indicate poor outcomes for pain control, this may be an incentive to learn more about how to treat pain.

Health care providers have a professional and ethical obligation to assess and reassess the pain of their patients, not to decide that assessing pain levels should no longer be part of routine care because CMS ties a small part of hospital payments to patient evaluations of how well their pain was treated.

Patients often demand unnecessary antibiotics, but ethical physicians must learn when and how to refuse them, informed by the ethics of good care, not maximum reimbursement.

Ethical, informed clinicians do not prescribe unnecessary medication for the sole purpose of gaining a high patient satisfaction rating.

The drive to end pain control assessment appears to come from the belief that people with substance abuse problems will complain if a practitioner fails to give them the drugs they seek.

Thus, ignorance is deemed a better alternative to appropriate clinical judgment.

But supporting evidence for this belief is lacking, as a top CMS official recently wrote in JAMA (2016 Mar 10.

there is no empirical evidence that failing to prescribe opioids lowers a hospital’s HCAHPS scores. … On the other hand, good nurse and physician communication are strongly associated with better HCAHPS scores.”

Advocates in favor of eliminating pain assessments are attempting to benefit patients and society at large. The principles that not all pain can be relieved and that opioids are not always the answer are good and deserve wider dissemination

Pain treatment has never been, nor should it ever be, synonymous with opioid therapy. In its zeal to eliminate problems with opioids, society must not dismiss pain, whether that pain is a symptom or a disease

Sadly, because of today’s opioid crisis, many patients are being denied humane treatment of their pain.

There is no rational argument that appropriate in-hospital pain control contributes to the opioid crisis in our communities.

This attack on our most vulnerable patients must stop.

The problem isn’t that we ask our patients too many bothersome (to the clinician) questions. Neither does the solution to the opioid crisis lie in denying the majority of patients compassionate pain control.

Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and author of “The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us.” Visit He also is a member of the Pain Medicine News editorial advisory board. He lives in Salt Lake City.

2 thoughts on “Assessing Pain Is Vital

  1. Kathy C

    I think of my 70 year old friend, she didn’t want drugs, she wanted to know why her back was hurting. her Physicians assumed she wanted drugs. They passed her off on numerous appointments, sending her to a Chiropractor. She spent thousands of her limited income on Chiropractors and other New Ages “Healing” after a couple of years passed, it turned out she had advanced Kidney Cancer. There are going to be a lot of these cases. This was just one more way for them to avoid accountability and deny Healthcare. Maybe it didn’t have anything to do with the “opiate epidemic.” They do not want to give any healthcare to injured Blue Collar Workers or all of those minimum wage Big Box store employees. What a brilliant and profitable move. There is no Agency counting the dead or the number of people with postponed care, or the costs associated with this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      This is truly a tragic case, and it’s only one of an increasing number of tales of the injustice, denied medical care, and tragic consequences of taking away a person’s only effective pain reielf.

      I don’t want to become one of those people, but I guess it’s all up to the doctors, or their bosses, or corporate management. I live with the constant dread that it could happen to me.

      Barring a miracle, my uncontrolled pain would make my life too painful and too restrictive to tolerate.



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