In recent years, standardized pain scales (typically ranging from zero—no pain, to 10—the worst pain imaginable) have gained currency in U.S. hospitals and other healthcare settings, thanks to the growing emphasis on pain management by groups such as the Joint Commission. (See “Pain Assessment Scales,” p. 49.) Such pain scales make it possible to quantify, chart, and track over time the patient’s subjective, self-reported pain scores. But while nurses may be regularly charting patients’ pain scores, hospitalists need to review those scores.
“We used to say that treating pain is not rocket science, but clearly there are skills and knowledge that hospitalists should acquire, including how to handle difficult issues around substance abuse or mental health,” explains Dr. Brody. “Certain basic rules of pain management can go a long way if you’re open to the belief that learning those rules is important and if you have an expectation that you will bring the patient’s pain under control.
“Talk to the patient,” he advises. “Ask what are the patient’s goals for pain relief.” The goal is not necessarily zero pain but a balance between pain relief and side effects from analgesics, based on functional status, defined goals, and the patient’s expressed preferences.
With practice, hospitalists can gain comfort with prescribing short-acting and long-acting opioids plus adjuvant treatments sufficient to address the majority of pain cases. They can also learn to convert between oral and intravenous opioid administration. But they must recognize when to call for reinforcements, such as the hospital’s pain service or a palliative care consultant, for assistance with more challenging cases. Ultimately, effective pain management in the hospital is multi-disciplinary, drawing at different times on the complementary perspectives of other team members, including the nurse, pharmacist, social worker, and chaplain.
“The first step to improving pain management is to develop awareness of the problem,” says Steven Pantilat, MD, a hospitalist, associate professor of clinical medicine, Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, and past president of SHM. “But you also have to be comfortable giving adequate doses of these medications. You get comfortable through experience.”
Dr. Pantilat recommends that hospitalists stick with a few familiar opioids, both short-acting and long-acting. “But 90% of pain can be managed by a hospitalist without need for consultation.” He is also the past-president of SHM and the Alan M. Kates and John M. Burnard Endowed Chair in Palliative Care at UCSF.