Medical Trainees’ Experiences of Treating People With Chronic Pain: A Lost Opportunity for Medical Education

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Abstract

Purpose

Evidence suggests that physicians’ opinions about patients with chronic pain become progressively negative over the course of medical training, leading to decline in empathy for these patients. Few qualitative studies have focused on this issue, and thus the experiences shaping this process remain unexplored. This study addressed how medical trainees learn about chronic pain management through informal and formal curricula.

Method

This study adopted a constructive qualitative approach informed by the theoretical lens of the hidden curriculum. Thirteen open-ended interviews were conducted with medical students and residents at various training stages; interviewees had experience treating patients with chronic pain, shadowing the care of these patients, or both. Interviews elicited information about stage of medical training, general descriptions of work, and concrete experiences of managing patients with chronic pain. All interviews were collected in Toronto between June and August 2015.

Results

Most interviewees described the management of chronic pain as challenging and unrewarding and attributed this at least in part to their perception that pain was subjective. Trainees also recounted that their inability to cure chronic pain left them confused about how to provide care, and voiced a perception that preceptors seemed to view these patients as having little educational value.

Conclusions

Specifically because chronic pain is subjective and incurable, listening and communication become crucial for patient care. Instead of sheltering trainees, medical educators should be offered the opportunity to reflect on the skills that are required to provide patient-centered care for this population. This approach has the potential to greatly benefit both trainees and patients.

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