Chronic pain affects millions of people worldwide and is a leading cause of disability and healthcare use. A new study led by Flinders University has shown that timely, affordable, integrated and individualised support options can help people living with chronic pain to improve their self-management and understanding of the ways they can better manage their pain.

A novel telehealth program developed by Flinders University and SA Health experts shows the potential for non-mental health professionals – in tandem with medical and allied health experts – to help those living with chronic pain get access to support that can make a difference and reduce suffering.

It also provides access to care and support for people living outside of metro areas who may have to wait years to see a pain specialist, says Flinders University Behavioural Health expert Paula Redpath, from the College of Medicine and Public Health.

A pilot study of the ‘Rethinking Pain’ guided self-help program in South Australia proved a promising model for specialised information and support delivered by supervised coaches who worked with people with chronic pain to increase their understanding of their condition and improve their self-management.

“Accessing care and support for chronic pain is difficult, time-consuming and costly, particularly for people living in rural and remote areas,” says Ms Redpath, Behavioural Health Discipline Lead at Flinders University.

“Chronic pain is a complex condition that often requires specialised, multidisciplinary teams to provide effective and integrated care.

“Once a person understands helpful ways to manage their chronic pain, they can choose what strategies they want to use to self-manage.

“The coaches guide and assist people with these strategies, which they can then take away and use.”

The program can be offered by telehealth or in person and involves goal setting, pain conceptualisation, activity scheduling, psycho-education, pacing and cognitive strategies, with follow-up evaluations showing significant improvement in patients’ reported independence and quality of life.

“Coaches are part of the multidisciplinary team and can support people with information and strategies for their chronic pain, which in turn can relieve pressure on higher-trained health and medical professionals to concentrate on more complex care,” says Flinders University academic Dr Peter Herriot from the SA Health Southern Adelaide Local Health Network (SALHN) Pain Management Unit, who supervised the trial.

“This program has the potential to be scaled up and augmented across other health systems to offer this evidence-based care option and reduce inequities for people who live with chronic pain.”

The guided self-help (GSH) program, developed by Flinders experts, was delivered by supervised postgraduate students from the University’s Master of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy course who undertook placement at SA Health’s Pain Management Unit at Flinders Medical Centre, Bedford Park.

An estimated 1 in 5 Australians aged 45 and over have chronic pain with the annual cost of treatment reported to be more than $139 billion.  

Wider implementation of programs such as ‘Rethinking Pain’ are important to expand and improve care options for people living with chronic pain, adds Ms Redpath.

“Disseminating this specialist knowledge to a diversified health workforce and peers in the community and through primary care services may also reduce demand for psychiatrists and psychologists whose services are limited and hard to access.”

Further, people with chronic pain can experience significant physical and emotional impacts, including sleep quality, employment issues and poor wellbeing, and may not be able to access adequate support services due to social disadvantage.