Painful Discrimination in the Emergency Department: Risk Factors for Underassessment of Patients’ Pain by Nurses

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Abstract

Introduction:

Unrelieved acute musculoskeletal pain continues to be a reality of major clinical importance, despite advancements in pain management. Accurate pain assessment by nurses is crucial for effective pain management. Yet inaccurate pain assessment is a consistent finding worldwide in various clinical settings, including the emergency department. In this study, pain assessments between nurses and patients with acute musculoskeletal pain after extremity injury will be compared to assess discrepancies. A second aim is to identify patients at high risk for underassessment by emergency nurses.

Methods:

The prospective PROTACT study included 539 adult patients who were admitted to the emergency department with musculoskeletal pain. Data on pain assessment and characteristics of patients including demographics, pain, and injury, psychosocial, and clinical factors were collected using questionnaires and hospital registry.

Results:

Nurses significantly underestimated patients’ pain with a mean difference of 2.4 and a 95% confidence interval of 2.2-2.6 on an 11-points numerical rating scale. Agreement between nurses’ documented and patients’ self-reported pain was only 27%, and 63% of the pain was underassessed. Pain was particularly underassessed in women, in persons with a lower educational level, in patients who used prehospital analgesics, in smokers, in patients with injury to the lower extremities, in anxious patients, and in patients with a lower urgency level.

Discussion:

Underassessment of pain by emergency nurses is still a major problem and might result in undertreatment of pain if the emergency nurses rely on their assessment to provide further pain treatment. Strategies that focus on awareness among nurses of which patients are at high risk of underassessment of pain are needed.

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