Chronic Pain in the UK: More efficient referrals could free up over 16 million GP appointments

Health / Thu 29th Sep 2022 at 04:35pm

THE majority of people living with chronic pain[i] in the UK (69%) had to visit multiple general practitioners (GPs) and wait more than a year before receiving an official diagnosis, with more than one quarter of people (28%) waiting three years or more. This insight comes as part of a survey of people living with chronic pain, conducted to mark pain awareness month (September) by an independent research agency on behalf of Boston Scientific.

Chronic pain is defined as continuous and long-term pain lasting for more than 12 weeks.[ii] Today, it’s estimated that a quarter of UK residents are living with chronic pain[iii] – potentially as many as 13.2 million adults.[iv]

The National Health Service (NHS) advises people having difficulty managing pain to get in touch with their GP for a referral to a pain clinic.[v] Pain clinics offer a wide range of treatments and support, including access to medical pain specialists, who are doctors trained to evaluate, diagnose, treat, and prevent many different types of pain.

Those who had accessed a pain specialist in the UK saw between one and four healthcare professionals on average before being referred to a pain specialist, according to the survey.

If the wider UK experience reflects that of the survey, with multiple GP visits needed in order to access a pain specialist, this could represent as many as 16.5 million additional GP appointments*, the equivalent of up to 290 years of consultation time.

“Chronic pain can have many different causes, so the diagnosis is not always easy,” says Dr Simon Thomson, Consultant in Pain Medicine and Neuromodulation, Clinical Lead of Pain and Neuromodulation at Basildon and Thurrock University Hospital and Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust. “But knowledge about pain therapy is not broadly established despite recommendations, and sometimes symptoms fall through the cracks of the general healthcare system prolonging the time chronic pain patients suffer. But there are ways to help them. Several existing therapies, if properly implemented, can restore a patient’s quality of life.”

The survey found that one-third of people (31%) with pain had secured a referral to a pain specialist at their first consultation. The survey results found that those who went to a pain specialist earlier were less likely to have to wait a number of years before receiving a chronic pain diagnosis.

“Every person experiences pain differently, which is why personalised treatment and care are so critical,” said Vincent Sourdaine, vice president, Neuromodulation, Boston Scientific, EMEA. “Our survey highlights unacceptable delays in people being diagnosed with chronic pain, which leads to prolonged agony. It is our commitment to change the lives of many more people with this condition, and we are continually investing in research and development to provide meaningful technologies that offer more patient choice, as well as into education and awareness campaigns to shine a light on the issue.”

Treatments reduce suffering

Treatments for pain can bring about a significant positive impact. Based on the survey results, across all treatment methods (e.g. medication, medical technology, physical therapy, etc.), the share of those in the UK who felt intense pain (choosing 10 on a one to 10 pain score scale) before they started a treatment drops from 29% to 5% after treatment, indicating that the right treatment can significantly improve quality of life.

Additional survey findings: chronic pain in the UK

Pain specialists are recommended: Nearly three quarters (73%) of people who visited a pain specialist felt understood and would recommend that others experiencing pain visit a pain specialist.
Chronic pain affects work and livelihoods: 62% of people not presently working attributed chronic pain to be the reason. One in five people (23%) said their chronic pain has had no impact on their professional life.

High reliance on pain medication: More than three quarters of people with pain rely on pain medication (77%). Physical therapy was used by more than one quarter (27%). A small percentage of people currently use devices or medical technology, such as spinal cord stimulation or radiofrequency ablation.
Gender differences in pain: More women take three or more years to get a chronic pain diagnosis (33%), compared to men (22%). Women were also more likely to stop work because of chronic pain (68%), compared to men (52%).

More British people with pain are aware of the role of a pain specialist (85%) compared to Germany (18%), Italy (24%) and Spain (53%): Despite this higher level of awareness, still only half of UK people with pain had ever consulted a pain specialist.

Beyond the drain on the healthcare system, chronic pain also has an economic dimension: More than one in five survey respondents (23%) state that they cannot work anymore due to their chronic pain.
People do not feel comfortable talking about pain: Half of people (48%) said they did not feel comfortable talking about their chronic pain in their professional life. One quarter (26%) do not feel comfortable discussing their pain with a partner, family or friends.

Boston Scientific have dedicated resources for people who experience chronic pain, including a pain centre locator to find local specialists: https://bit.ly/ChronicPainUK

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