Original Research

Something Must Be Wrong with the Implementation of Cancer-pain Treatment Guidelines. A Lesson from Referrals to a Pain Clinic

Gil Samuelly-Leichtag, Tsiki Adler, and Elon Eisenberg


Objective: The World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines for cancer pain management were intentionally made simple in order to be widely implemented by all physicians treating cancer patients. Referrals to pain specialists are advised if pain does not improve within a short time. The present study examined whether or not a reasonable use of the WHO guideline was made by non-pain specialists prior to referral of patients with cancer-related pain to a pain clinic. Methods: Cancer patients referred to a pain specialist completed several questionnaires including demographics, medical history, and cancer-related pain; the short-form McGill Pain Questionnaire (SF-MPQ); and the Short Form Health Survey SF-12. Data from referral letters and medical records were obtained. Treatments recommended by pain specialists were recorded and categorized as “unjustified” if they were within the WHO ladder framework, or “justified” if they included additional treatments. Results: Seventy-three patients (44 women, 29 men) aged 55 years (range, 25–85) participated in the study. Their pain lasted for a mean of 6 (1–192) months. Mean pain intensity scores on a 0–10 numerical rating scale were 7 (2–10) at rest and 8 (3–10) upon movement. Most patients complied with their referring physician’s recommendations and consumed opioids. Adverse events were frequent. No significant correlation was found between the WHO analgesic medication step used and mean pain levels reported. There were 63 patient referrals (85%) categorized as “unjustified,” whereas only 11 patients (15%) required “justified” interventions. Conclusions: These findings imply that analgesic treatment within the WHO framework was not reasonably utilized by non-pain specialists before referring patients to pain clinics.

Rambam Maimonides Med J 2019;10(3):e0016