Cost of chronic pain laid bare in alarming new report

A new report found just one in 100 people with chronic pain receives the proper multidisciplinary care they need to manage pain. Source: Getty

Anyone living with chronic pain will know the significant impact it can have on all aspects of life, and an alarming new report released on Thursday highlights the true cost it’s having on Australia.

PainAustralia’s The Cost Of Pain In Australia report reveals that 3.24 million Australians struggle with pain daily, while falling through the gaps of the health system that can’t properly address it. This number is expected to rise to 5.23 million by 2050 if action isn’t taken.

The report pulls data from the health, ageing and disability sectors and highlights how chronic pain is crippling Australia.

More than three million Australians now face a shorter life and struggle each day with the limitations chronic pain places on their lives. It restricts the activities people can undertake, reduces a person’s ability to work, impacts sleep, causes fatigue and can also have a detrimental impact on relationships.

“This is why the impact of pain is so great, not just in dollar terms, but in lost potential, to contribute, to participate,” Associate Professor Malcolm Hogg, Head of Pain Services at Melbourne Health and PainAustralia Director, said in a statement. “The rising rate of deaths associated with prescription opioids is just one indicator that we aren’t dealing with chronic pain well in this country.”

The report also highlights the impact chronic pain has on mental health, with close to 1.45 million Aussies living with it also experiencing depression and anxiety. Experts fear this number will rise to more than 2.3 million by 2050 if action isn’t taken now.

In the most comprehensive analysis of the financial impact of chronic pain in Australia to date, data reveals chronic pain cost taxpayers $139 billion in 2018. Aussies also paid $2.7 billion in out of pocket expenses to manage their pain in 2018, a figure that is expected to rise without significant change.

Read more: Opioid addiction: One nun’s journey from hell to recovery

“Without genuine reform, quickly implemented, our research shows the cost of chronic pain will climb from $139.3 billion today to $215 billion by 2050, putting even more pressure on the back pockets of patients and an already struggling health system that is ill-equipped to adequately manage chronic pain,” PainAustralia’s CEO Carol Bennett said in a statement.

“It is my sincerest hope that this revealing and important evidence will compel national action in how we respond to pain. In a country like Australia, we must do better for the millions of people in pain. Anything less is unacceptable.”

The report also highlights a lack of specialist care and GPs equipped to handle chronic pain, which is resulting in patients being overlooked. Furthermore, they’re not receiving multidisciplinary care, which is considered the standard in pain management in Australia. The report shows just one in 100 people with chronic pain receive the multidisciplinary care they need and there are only 316 pain specialists in the country.

One-fifth of all GP presentations in Australia involve chronic pain, but the report finds referrals to pain specialists occur in less than 15 per cent of GP consultations where pain is managed.

“There are changes we can put in place that can make a big difference to the lives of so many who live with chronic pain and help to improve how our health system manages pain,” Bennett said. “PainAustralia’s National Action Plan has set out a clear path forward which can help to address these issues, in particular, supporting two potential interventions mapped out in our report that could not only save lives but be a sound economic investment for Government to make.”

One major recommendation to address the multidisciplinary care people require is the roll-out of a pain specialist-designed and led national GP training program. Costing around $45 million, the program has the potential to save $209 million in overdose-related costs alone.

“By providing GPs with the necessary expertise to adequately manage pain, we can help to ensure those living with chronic pain have access to the specific care they need to manage their pain, which can include pain education, physical and psychological methods that can optimise recovery and function of those with pain,” Hogg said.

The report also suggests doubling access to multidisciplinary care at a cost of $70 million a year could save around $271 annually through savings to the health system, absenteeism and overall improved wellbeing.

Read more: Opioids only help a little when it comes to chronic pain: Study

“Chronic pain can come in many forms with differing impacts on the physical and mental wellbeing of a patient,” Hogg explained. “It is crucial that those in need have access to a range of healthcare professionals with the particular skillsets to meet each individual need.”

Do you live with chronic pain? What kind of impact does it have on your life?

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