A 55-year-old male with a history of diabetes mellitus, lumbar degenerative disc disease, and chronic low back pain was admitted overnight with right lower extremity cellulitis. He reported taking oral hydromorphone for chronic pain, but review of the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) revealed multiple short-term prescriptions from various ED providers, as well as monthly prescriptions from a variety of primary care providers.
Throughout the EHR, he is described as manipulative and narcotic-seeking with notation of multiple ED visits for pain. Multiple discharges against medical advice were noted. He was given two doses of IV hydromorphone in the ED and requested that this be continued. He was admitted for IV antibiotics for severe leg pain that he rated 15/10.
The Society of Hospital Medicine published a consensus statement in the Journal of Hospital Medicine in 2018 that included 16 clinical recommendations on the safe use of opioids for the treatment of acute pain in hospitalized adults.1 In regard to communication about pain, clinicians are encouraged to set realistic goals and expectations of opioid therapy, closely monitor response to opioid therapy, and provide education about the side effects and potential risks of opioid therapy for patients and their families.
However, even when these strategies are employed, the social and behavioral complexities of individual patients can contribute to unsatisfactory interactions with health care staff. Because difficult encounters have been linked to provider burnout, enhanced communication strategies can benefit both the patient and physician.2
SHM’s Patient Experience Committee saw an opportunity to provide complementary evidence-based best-practice tips for communication about pain. Specifically, the committee worked collectively to develop a framework that can be applied to more challenging encounters.
The VIEW Framework
VISIT the patient’s chart and your own mental state.
First, visit the patient’s chart to review information relevant to the patient’s pain history. The EHR can be leveraged through filters and search functions to identify encounters, consultations, and notes relevant to pain management.
Look at the prior to admission medication list and active medication list and see if there are discrepancies. The medication administration record (MAR) can help identify adjunctive medications that the patient may be refusing. PDMP data should be screened for signs of aberrant use, including multiple pharmacies, multiple prescribers, short intervals between prescriptions, and serially prescribed, multiple, low-quantity prescriptions.
While documented pain scores can be a marker of patient distress, objective aspects of the patient’s functional status can shed light on how much his/her discomfort impairs day-to-day living. Examples of these measures include nutritional intake, sleep cycle, out of bed activity, and participation with therapy. Lastly, assess for opioid-related side-effects including constipation, decreased respiratory rate, and any notation of over sedation in narrative documentation from ancillary services.
Once this information has been accrued, it is important to take a moment of mindfulness before meeting with the patient. Take steps to minimize interruptions with electronic devices by silencing your pager/cell phone and disengaging from computers/tablets. Some examples of mindfulness-based practices include taking cycles of deep breathing, going for a short walk to appreciate hospital artwork or view points, or focusing on the sensory aspects of washing your hands prior to seeing the patient. Self-reflection on prior meaningful encounters can also help reset your state of mind. These activities can help clear prior subconscious thoughts and frustrations and prepare for the task ahead of you.3
Intense focus and awareness can enhance your recognition of patient distress, increase your ability to engage in active listening, and enable you to be more receptive to verbal and nonverbal cues.2 Additionally, mindful behaviors have been shown to contribute to decreased burnout and improved empathy.4,5
INTERVIEW the patient.
Once you enter the room, introduce yourself to the patient and others who are present. Interview the patient by eliciting subjective information. Use open-ended and nonjudgmental language, and take moments to summarize the patient’s perspective.
Inquire about the patient’s home baseline pain scores and past levels of acceptable function. Further explore the patient’s performance goals related to activities of daily living and quality of life. Ask about any prior history of addiction to any substance, and if needed, discuss your specific concerns related to substance misuse and abuse.
EMPATHIZE with the patient.
Integrate empathy into your interview by validating any frustrations and experience of pain. Identifying with loss of function and quality of life can help you connect with the patient and initiate a therapeutic relationship. Observe both verbal and nonverbal behaviors that reveal signs of emotional discomfort.6 Use open-ended questions to create space and trust for patients to share their feelings.
Pause to summarize the patient’s perspective while acknowledging and validating emotions that he or she may be experiencing such as anxiety, fear, frustration and anger.6 Statements such as “ I know it is frustrating to ... ” or “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to ... ” can help convey empathy. Multiple studies have suggested that enhanced provider empathy and positive messaging can also reduce patient pain and anxiety and increase quality of life.7,8 Empathic responses to negative emotional expressions from patients have also been associated with higher ratings of communication.9
Finally, wrap up by aligning expectations with the patient for pain control and summarize your management recommendations. Educate the patient and his/her family on the risks and benefits of recommended therapy as well as the expected course of recovery. Setting shared goals for functionality relevant to the patient’s personal values and quality of life can build connection between you and your patient.
While handing over the patient to the next provider, refrain from using stereotypical language such as “narcotic-seeking patient.” Clearly communicate the management plan and milestones to other team members, such as nurses, physical therapists, and oncoming hospitalists, to maintain consistency. This will help align patients and their care team and may stave off maladaptive patient behaviors such as splitting.
Applying the VIEW framework to the case
Upon visiting the medical chart, the physician realized that the patient’s opioid use began in his 20s when he injured his back in a traumatic motor vehicle accident. His successful athletic career came to a halt after this injury and opioid dependence ensued.
While reviewing past notes and prescription data via the PDMP, the physician noted that the patient had been visiting many different providers in order to get more pain medications. The most recent prescription was for oral hydromorphone 4 mg every 4 hours as needed, filled 1 week prior to this presentation.
She reviewed his vital signs and found that he had been persistently hypertensive and tachycardic. His nurse mentioned that he appeared to be in severe pain because of facial grimacing with standing and walking.
Prior to entering the patient’s room, the physician took a moment of mindfulness to become aware of her emotional state because she recognized that she was worried this could be a difficult encounter. She considered how hard his life has been and how much emotional and physical pain he might be experiencing. She took a deep breath, silenced her phone, and entered the room.
The physician sat at the bedside and interviewed the patient using a calm and nonjudgmental tone. It was quickly obvious to her that he was experiencing real pain. His cellulitis appeared severe and was tender to even minimal palpation. She learned that the pain in his leg had been worsening over the past week to the point that it was becoming difficult to ambulate, sleep and perform his daily hygiene routine. He was taking 4 mg tablets of hydromorphone every 2 hours, and he had run out a few days ago. He added that his mood was increasingly depressed, and he had even admitted to occasional suicidal thoughts because the pain was so unbearable.
When asked directly, he admitted that he was worried he was addicted to hydromorphone. He had first received it for low back pain after the motor vehicle accident, and it been refilled multiple times for ongoing pain over the course of a year. Importantly, she also learned that he felt he was often treated as an addict by medical professionals and felt that doctors no longer listened to him or believed him.
As the conversation went on, the physician offered empathetic statements, recognizing the way it might feel to have your pain ignored or minimized by doctors. She expressed how frustrating it is to not be able to perform basic functions and how difficult it must be to constantly live in pain.
She said, “I don’t want you to suffer in pain. I care about you and my goal is to treat your pain so that you can return to doing the things in life that you find meaningful.” She also recognized the severity of his depression and discussed with him the role and importance of psychiatric consultation.
The physician wrapped up the encounter by summarizing her plan to treat the infection and work together with him to treat his pain with the goal that he could ambulate and perform activities of daily living.
She reviewed the side effects of both acute and long-term use of opioids and discussed the risks and benefits. Given the fact that patient was on chronic baseline opioids and also had objective signs of acute pain, she started an initial regimen of hydromorphone 6 mg tablets every 4 hours as needed (a 50% increase over his home dose) and added acetaminophen 1000 mg every 6 hours and ibuprofen 600 mg every 8 hours.
She informed him that she would check on him in the afternoon and that the ultimate plan would be to taper down on his hydromorphone dose each day as his cellulitis improved. She also communicated that bidirectional respect between the patient and care team members was critical to a successful pain management.
Finally, she explained that there was going to be a different doctor covering at night and major changes to the prescription regimen would be deferred to daytime hours.
When she left the room, she summarized the plan with the patient’s nurse and shared a few details about the patient’s difficult past. At the end of the shift, the physician signed out to the overnight team that the patient had objective signs of pain and recommended a visit to the bedside if the patient’s symptoms were reported as worsening.
During his hospital stay, she monitored the patient’s nonverbal responses to movement, participation in physical therapy, and ability to sleep. She tapered the hydromorphone down each day as the patient’s cellulitis improved. At discharge, he was prescribed a 3-day supply of his home dose of hydromorphone and the same acetaminophen and ibuprofen regimen he had been on in the hospital with instructions for tapering. Finally, after coming to an agreement with the patient, she arranged for follow-up in the opioid taper clinic and communicated the plan with the patient’s primary care provider.
Dr. Horman is a hospitalist and assistant professor of medicine at UC San Diego Health. Dr. Richards is a hospitalist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Dr. Horman and Dr. Richards note that they wrote this article in collaboration with the Society of Hospital Medicine Patient Experience Committee.
- Spend adequate time to fully visit patients’ history as it relates to their current pain complaints.
- Review notes and prescription data to better understand past and current pain regimen.
- Be vigilant about taking a mindful moment to visit your thoughts and potential biases.
- Interview patients using a calm tone and nonjudgmental, reassuring words.
- Empathize with patients and validate any frustrations and experience of pain.
- Wrap-up by summarizing your recommendations with patients, their families, the care team, and subsequent providers.
1. Herzig SJ et al. Safe opioid prescribing for acute noncancer pain in hospitalized adults: A Systematic Review of Existing Guidelines..
2. An PG et al. (MEM Investigators). Burden of difficult encounters in primary care: data from the minimizing error, maximizing outcomes study..
3. Sanyer O, Fortenberry K. Using Mindfulness Techniques to improve difficult clinical encounters..
4. Beckman HB et al. The impact of a program in mindful communication on primary care physicians..
5. Krasner MS et al. Association of an educational program in mindful communication with burnout, empathy, and attitudes among primary care physicians..
6. Dean M, Street R. A 3-Stage model of patient centered communication for addressing cancer patients’ emotional distress..
7. Howick J et al. Effects of empathic and positive communication in healthcare consultations: A systematic review and meta-analysis..
8. Mistiaen P et al. The effect of patient-practitioner communication on pain: A systematic review..
9. Weiss R et al. Associations of physician empathy with patient anxiety and ratings of communication in hospital admission encounters..