Not too long ago, in the 1990s and 2000s, the health care system’s best solution for chronic pain was an opioid prescription. Today, of course, we know that opioids are highly addictive and deadly, only to be used as pain relief in moderation with careful oversight.
Still, even after more than a decade of trying to curb opioid use, overdose deaths continue to ravage the country, with each year’s death count higher than the last. In a single 12-month period ending in April 2021, more than 75,000 people were estimated to have died from opioid overdoses – nearly 20,000 more deaths than the previous year.
Clearly, the nation’s strategies to lessen opioid-related deaths are not working. Even though opioids are off the table in many instances, people still experience pain. So how do we address pain management effectively with little or no opioids?
One solution is digital health, an effective – though underutilized – tool for pain management. In my role as a chief clinical officer of a virtual physical therapy platform, I get to see firsthand how solutions like these can help reduce opioid reliance and regain mobility.
Recently a patient with a significant amount of pain and reliance on opioids began virtual physical therapy. Through the program, she began the process of learning how to safely move without injuring herself. With this practice, she was able to overcome her fear of movement, which is a typical reaction for those living in pain. The patient regained her independence in activities she used to enjoy, simple things like going out to dinner with friends or putting away the dishes, and her reliance on opioid medication was reduced.
She explained how she could do things she couldn’t do before, such as lift some heavier things, and how her mobility increased. Most importantly, she was no longer in pain all the time and had significantly reduced the use of medication.
As we see in this example, virtual physical therapy can help individuals overcome barriers that they thought could only be solved by medication. When leveraged correctly, digital health offers three advantages over in-person care and can reduce the need for opioids and improve pain management.
Get upstream on pain management
Digital health allows us to get upstream of chronic pain problems by connecting with patients early and before it feels unmanageable. Many health plans now offer members access to various digital programs, which they can sign up for without needing a referral from a provider or having any existing health conditions. By lowering the barrier to access, digital health providers and their partners can begin building relationships with members even before they enter the medical system.
For example, once a member is onboard, digital health programs have the ability to identify people in pain or at risk of pain and offer to begin working with them before their pain becomes chronic. Dealing with chronic pain is both physically and emotionally stressful. It can cause depression and greatly reduce a person’s quality of life. The development of chronic pain is even associated with structural and functional changes in the brain.
Building a solid foundation to manage pain early on will allow patients to better cope. And, better pain management strategies are thought to also undo or prevent the changes in the brain that can propagate pain and lead to emotional disorders.
As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Accessibility, when pain is calling
Access to brick-and-mortar clinics is restricted to certain hours and days of the week. Conversely, digital health can fit into the palm of someone’s hand, with programs that are accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Access is vital because chronic pain doesn’t mind a schedule. A pain crisis can occur at any time. Having unlimited access to digital health programs – such as virtual physical therapy or mindful meditation – during a crisis can help reduce suffering and promote patient empowerment.
For patients, digital health tools are something tangible, something real they can use in the moment to lower and manage their pain. That in itself can make a world of difference for the person suffering, helping them turn away from the need to use opioids for pain relief.
Providers gain increased insights
In collaboration with digital health, health care providers gain access to robust data that they wouldn’t normally get through in-office visits.
Digital health programs that track members’ progress and monitor outcomes are able to present providers with regular updates and insights into their patients, such as physical activity level, medication intake monitoring, pain level, function level and engagement. That level of granularity is not possible through regular medical or wellness check-ins with a primary care doctor.
It isn’t uncommon for one doctor to tell a patient the pain isn’t a big deal, while another prescribes pain pills. Digital health can act as the connective tissue among solutions, patients, providers and clinics, improving communication among a patient’s care team and keeping them up-to-date in real-time. With all the providers on the same page, it is easier to maintain consistent messaging around pain, avoiding those mixed messages.
The power of digital health in helping people manage pain is clear, yet it remains untapped potential. All the players, from digital health vendors to payers and providers, need to work together to make it a scalable reality.
More than 200 hundred people are dying a day from an opioid-related overdose. Having access to alternative opioid options for pain management is essential in lowering this outrageous death toll.
Photo: sorbetto, Getty Images