The article, "Cancer Pain Management in the 21st Century," by Grossman, Dunbar, and Nesbit, provides a concise overview of the past 20 years' research advances and new pharmacologic, surgical, and radiotherapeutic approaches to relieve the pain of patients with cancer. The article also includes a description of both the "carrots" (the National Comprehensive Cancer Network [NCCN] and American Pain Society [APS] guidelines) and the "sticks" (the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations [JCAHO] mandates) that should have led to marked improvements in the control of pain, but have not.
Barriers to Pain Management
The authors' Table 3, "Barriers to Cancer Pain Management," lists a number of factors that contribute to this failure, including "reluctance to report pain," "inadequate knowledge of pain and its treatment," "myths and misconceptions about opioids," and "inaccurate opioid conversions." Indeed, patients are often reluctant to tell us they have pain: (a) they don't want to be "complainers" and waste their 15 minutes with us talking about their pain; (b) they and their families worry that increasing pain means advancing disease; and (c) they resist taking stronger opioids because they'll "use them up, too" and have nothing left when the pain gets "really bad."
But when we know that 70% of our cancer patients will have pain, how can it be that we still have "inadequate knowledge of pain and its treatment"? At least part of the problem is inadequate training in pain assessment and management during nursing education and in medical school, residency, and oncology fellowship, despite the available consensus guidelines that, if followed, result in acceptable relief of pain in > 90% of cancer patients. These and other print resources "contain virtually all that is needed for a house staff, primary care physician, or specialists to make informed decisions regarding the evaluation and management of cancer pain." In addition, the Oncology Nursing Society offers pain management resources, and the American Society of Clinical Oncology offers oncology clinicians written curricula on pain and symptom management.
Treatment of pain is not simply a matter of choosing the right analgesic drugs or interventional techniques. Pain is exacerbated by anxiety and feelings of powerless, uselessness, and even hopelessness as patients become less and less able to fulfill their roles in the workplace, the community, and the family. Existential angst or rage at God, and the guilt and loneliness stemming from that rage, feel terrible. We must therefore assess and address the psychological, social, and spiritual causes of suffering that patients report as "pain," be expert communicators, and understand what it would take to make each person whole.
To acquire these new skills, clinicians need to do more than read: They need experiential training with experts, such as is offered in the communication training initiative entitled Oncotalk for oncology fellows, in the Education in Palliative and End-of-Life-Care-Oncology (EPEC-O) project for oncologists, and in educational materials from the End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium (ELNEC) for oncology nurses. In addition, psychotherapists, chaplains, and social workers are superb resources, and palliative care consultants can provide hands-on training. While palliative care consultants have not been widely available either in the academic or community setting, fellowships are growing exponentially and palliative medicine is likely to be approved as a subspecialty this year by the American Board of Medical Specialties.
Palliative care specialists alone are insufficient to effect the needed culture change that can reverse the undertreatment of pain in cancer patients. Oncology clinicians will need to advocate for structural changes in our hospitals. Currently, hospital safety concerns focus on clinicians who overdose patients (usually opioid-naive postoperative patients). A root-cause analysis is done to uncover and correct systemic problems that contributed to the event. But no such attention is paid to the equally serious errors made by clinicians who underdose our oncology patients.
Underdosing often arises from inaccurate calculations. Rescue opioid doses are frequently underestimated: They should be ~10% of the total daily opioid dose. The oral equivalents of intravenous opioid doses are similarly underestimated, "teaching" patients that only parenteral opioids work. Because of first-pass metabolism by the liver, it takes 30 mg of oral morphine to equal a 10-mg intravenous or subcutaneous dose, and 7.5 mg of oral hydromorphone to equal a 1.5-mg intravenous or subcutaneous dose. The same computer resources that now calculate our patients' chemotherapy doses (taking into account their body mass and renal function) can be used to eliminate these calculation errors in opioid rescue doses and conversions.
1. Grossman SE, Dunbar EM, Nesbit SA: Cancer pain management in the 21st century. Oncology (Williston Park) 23:1333-1340, 2006.
2. Abrahm JL: A Physician's Guide to Pain and Symptom Management in Cancer Patients. 2nd ed. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
3. Cassell EJ: The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, 2nd ed. New York, Oxford University Press, 2004.
4. Back AL, Arnold RM, Tulsky JA, et al: Teaching communication skills to medical oncology fellows. J Clin Oncol 21:2433-2436, 2003.