Even at the best of times, pain is a major problem in Australia. And we know there are serious gaps in addressing the health, social and financial issues that result. Many Australians living with pain have been unable to access high quality pain assessment and management, whether due to cost, geographic barriers, low awareness of treatment options, or lack of access to health professionals with the right knowledge and skills.
Unfortunately, in 2020 we are not living in the best of times. After experiencing the bushfire crisis at the start of the year, Australia, like the rest of the world, has now been left reeling by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. We face unprecedented challenges to the health and wellbeing of our population, as well as significant challenges to our economy.
These challenges are amplified for people living with chronic pain, whose starting point before the epidemic was already compromised. We know that people living with pain have lower workforce participation and are more economically disadvantaged. They frequently face stigma, they are often socially isolated, and they have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. They may need medications such as opioids to manage their everyday lives.
Add in the effects of the pandemic, and many people living with pain are at crisis point. Social isolation is exacerbated, work opportunities are scarce, and access to healthcare has become more difficult. Even physical activity, so important in managing pain, is becoming more challenging to access.
On top of all this, as last week’s blog highlighted from our survey, regulatory reforms to opioid prescribing and dispensing, while an important step forward, have come into effect in the midst of the pandemic, resulting in unintended and in many instances detrimental consequences including high levels of distress.
While these policy changes have been important to curb the growing harms related to opioid use, the timing of the changes combined with a lack of information and alternative options have created a perfect storm of events that for many people has been a bridge too far. Clearly much more needs to be done in terms of improved community understanding of the reforms through a community awareness campaign accompanied by targeted information, resources and support for those with chronic pain who have been on opioid medications for some time.
The pandemic has drawn attention away from other health issues including chronic pain, but we ignore these issues at our peril. Neither the individuals affected, nor our health system and economy, can continue to bear the burden of poorly managed chronic pain. Urgent action is needed, and the National Strategic Action Plan for Pain Management (the National Action Plan) sets out the blueprint. The Federal Government has already funded a small number of initiatives that will progress key outcomes set out in the National Action Plan.
a media campaign targeted to people with pain, to help people understand the opioid prescribing changes, and raise awareness of other treatment options;
telephone-based care navigation for people with chronic pain;
a community-based support worker program to help people self-manage their chronic pain;
a new model of care for people with pain living in residential aged care homes;
and MBS funding to support multidisciplinary chronic pain management.
The aim of each of these initiatives is to take pain management support to the settings where people most need to access this support right now, and into the future: in the community, and in residential aged care. These are efficient solutions which will make community-based, consumer-centred information, support, and care more readily available to the large numbers of Australians living with pain. The initiatives will enable people to understand and manage their pain better, and support access to best practice pain management strategies which can help reduce reliance on medications as the sole source of treatment.
These are all timely initiatives which address urgent gaps. Real and immediate action will not only improve the lives of people with chronic pain but will benefit all Australians through economic returns and reduced pressure on our health care system.
Painaustralia is urging the Federal Government to consider these proposals carefully to address the growing burden of pain conditions on our community and economy, and to mitigate the current crisis situation faced by many people living with chronic pain.