Challenges of Pain Management in Long-Term Care : Page 2 of 2

May 15, 2012

Recognition of Pain in Cognitively Impaired LTC Residents

Some researchers in the LTC setting have addressed the challenge of pain recognition in patients with cognitive impairment by using multifaceted pain assessment and management approaches. In a study by Kovach and colleagues26 involving a convenience sample of 104 residents at 32 Wisconsin LTC facilities, the Assessment of Discomfort in Dementia (ADD) protocol was used to both assess discomfort in people with dementia and to accurately and thoroughly treat pain, with the goal of decreasing the use of inappropriate psychotropic medications. Using the ADD protocol, behavioral symptoms of discomfort were significantly decreased, and there was an associated increase in the use of scheduled analgesics and nonpharmacologic comfort interventions.26 A subsequent descriptive exploratory study by Kovach and associates32 that further assessed the ADD protocol was inconclusive on its effectiveness, as the study had limitations and potential nursing bias. Kovach and colleagues33 later published a pain assessment and management protocol, called the Serial Trial Intervention (STI), which was based on the previous ADD protocol and had a goal to further address unmet needs of nursing home residents with late-stage dementia who were no longer able to communicate clearly. This study was a double-blind randomized trial that included 114 patients residing in 14 nursing homes. The outcome measured with the STI was discomfort using the Discomfort Scale for Dementia of the Alzheimer Type (DS-DAT) and the Behavioral Pathology in Alzheimer’s Disease (BEHAVE-AD) scale. In the study, the treatment group experienced significantly less discomfort and more often had their behavioral symptoms return to their baseline levels than the control group. Use of the STI also positively influenced nursing assessment, analgesic administration, and the nurses’ propensity to intervene when a patient was distressed.33

Husebo and colleagues34 assessed use of a stepwise protocol based on analgesic recommendations from the 1998 AGS pain guidelines to treat agitation that was presumably related to pain in 352 dementia patients at 18 nursing homes in Norway. The authors hypothesized that agitation, defined as a score of ≥39 on the Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory, would significantly improve after pain management. Secondary outcome measures were aggression, pain, activities of daily living, and cognition. The investigators found a significant reduction in agitation, aggression, and pain. Neither activities of daily living nor cognition worsened in the treatment group, making it unlikely that residents were excessively sedated from the opioids that were administered. 34


Staff Education

Whereas lack of staff education regarding pain management practice has been a key barrier to quality care in nursing homes, educational interventions have shown varying success when used alone.35-37 Jones and associates35 assessed the use of an intervention strategy involving educational and behavioral changes in six Colorado nursing homes. They found no change in the percentage of residents reporting pain before and after the intervention, but there was a statistically significant decrease in the number of residents reporting constant pain as well as improvements in the non–MDS pain assessments. This educational initiative was only somewhat successful in changing pain practices, however, partly because of staff and leadership turnover, poor physician attendance at the educational seminars, and the overwhelming amount of information that was given to participants.35

Stein and colleagues36 found that an educational program for nursing home physicians and staff focused on reducing use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in residents was more successful at changing the prescribing practices of primary care physicians, likely because a study physician either personally visited the institution or contacted LTC clinicians by phone to deliver the educational message. Another study found success targeting key nursing home physicians using an educational outreach program with interactive learning sessions, audit feedback, and a review of consensus-developed guidelines on end-of-life care.38

Multifaceted Approaches to Pain Management

While targeting physicians and staff in educational programs has shown some success, multifaceted approaches to pain management interventions that employ additional strategies, such as audit, feedback, and quality improvement initiatives, seem to be the most successful.12,38-40 Baier and colleagues39 used a collaborative intervention involving education on pain management, audit, and feedback with a quality improvement approach using the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) paradigm to improve practices in Rhode Island nursing homes. They found that this collaborative quality improvement model significantly reduced the prevalence of pain and improved adherence to recommended clinical care guidelines.

Another study that included four nursing homes in North Carolina implemented a chronic pain assessment and management initiative in which a quality improvement team reviewed current clinical practice guidelines on pain management, updated the institutions’ policies and procedures, developed tools for pain assessment, and educated the staff in pain assessment and management principles.41 The study measured the efficacy of these interventions by assessing the staff’s pain-related knowledge using a multiple-choice test before and after the educational program; evaluating the completeness of documentation upon conducting a pain assessment; and measuring patient and family satisfaction with pain assessment and management both before and after the intervention. The authors found improvements in all of these measures following implementation of their quality improvement project.

Hanson and colleagues42 studied a quality improvement intervention that focused on staff education in seven nursing homes in North Carolina, with two additional nursing homes serving as controls in the study. The intervention included recruitment and training of palliative care leadership teams, followed by six educational sessions for staff members that examined hospice care, pain management, and advance care planning. Feedback of performance data on hospice enrollment, pain management, and advance care planning were collected at 0, 3, and 6 months. Following this quality improvement intervention, there were statistically significant increases in hospice enrollment, number of pain assessments conducted, use of nonpharmacologic pain treatments, and advance care planning discussions at the intervention facilities. No significant changes in these measures were observed at the control facilities.

Horner and associates43 also used a quality improvement intervention in nine North Carolina nursing homes, providing nursing home staff leaders with education in pain management, feedback on pain quality indicator data, and assistance with the PDSA model. Five months following the intervention, pain assessments and nonpharmacologic pain treatments significantly increased for those residents experiencing pain, providing further support that quality improvement with a strong educational component can be an effective strategy for improving pain management.

Weissman and colleagues11,12 demonstrated that enacting change at an institutional level might lead to greater success than relying on the behavior of individual clinicians or staff in LTC settings. The study enrolled 87 LTC facilities in a multifaceted role model program that included educational workshops, formation and education of a pain quality team, and site visits from project team members. Support was provided for completing facility-specific action plans for change structured around 14 national practice indicators of an institutional commitment to pain management. Chart reviews were also performed, and regular follow-up with role models and mentoring were provided.11,12 “Buy-in” from facility administrators was key to the program’s success. The 14 target outcome indicators, which were based on guidelines by the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the American Pain Society, were similar to those outlined in the 1998 AGS pain guidelines.11 This program was effective over time, and project faculty made a commitment to continue meetings with participating facilities after the study’s end.12                  

Stevenson and colleagues40 reported on how templates, faculty, and ongoing consultation from the Resource Center of the American Alliance of Cancer Pain Initiatives were used to assist with implementing a practice-changing program to improve pain management in 113 healthcare organizations, which included home health agencies, LTC facilities, and community hospitals. Each organization committed to supporting a team of two to three staff members through a 10-month pain quality improvement process, which entailed a site visit, two educational conferences, pre- and postprogram analyses of the organizational structures in place to support pain assessment and management, quality improvement work plan development, and assessment of data collected from patient surveys. Postprogram results showed statistically significant increases in the presence of key structural elements within the healthcare institution that were important for effective pain management. An example of a key element was having a tool in place for assessing pain in cognitively impaired patients. The authors also found a statistically significant decrease in the percentage of patients who reported pain of any severity.40


Collaboration With an Interdisciplinary Team

Interdisciplinary team (IDT) participation has been shown to be beneficial in managing pain in LTC residents. Chapman and Toseland44 used IDTs in their study of advanced illness care teams for nursing home residents with dementia. Teams included members from medicine, nursing, social work, psychology, physical and occupational therapy, and nutrition. The authors addressed four domains of care: medical issues, meaningful activities, psychological problems, and behavioral concerns. Through collaboration in weekly meetings, the teams were effective in reducing agitated behavior and pain compared with the control group.44

Long and colleagues10 described an interdisciplinary audit, feedback, and quality improvement intervention that educated staff from all key departments in their facility. The training used an IDT approach that included disciplines of management, nursing, social service, pastoral care, physical and occupational therapy, and even environmental and food services. There were no statistical controls in this study, but a percentage reduction in the incidence of chronic pain was observed and fewer short-stay residents reported experiencing moderate to severe pain.10


Pain Management in Hospice

Although pain control is one of the primary goals of hospice care, and federal and state guidelines regulating hospices require every reasonable effort to be made to ensure patients’ pain is well controlled, there are conflicting data regarding whether hospice care consistently improves pain management interventions for LTC residents at the end of life.19,45 Miller and associates19 found that many dying nursing home residents received either no medications for their pain or analgesics that were inconsistent with the AMDA and AGS guidelines, although those enrolled in hospice were significantly more likely to receive regular treatment for daily pain than those residents not in hospice care at the end of life. Munn and colleagues45 saw no appreciable difference in pain management at the end of life between patients in hospice and nonhospice care. The authors noted that the rates of hospice use were high in their patient population (22% of the study group), and hospice enrollees more often had moderate to severe pain than those not in hospice care. As these studies demonstrate, more research is needed on the effects of hospice care on pain management among LTC residents.



Effective pain management requires careful thought and collaboration between providers, as nursing home residents often have many other conditions that may confound pain assessments. More research is needed to determine if strict adherence to the AGS, AMDA, or any other pain guidelines can effectively address pain in the setting of complex patient needs. Research is also needed to better understand the optimal assessment and management of all types of pain for patients in LTC settings. The available recommendations for pain assessment would benefit from additional testing in prospective clinical trials in nursing homes to ensure their validity and effectiveness before they are implemented in LTC facilities nationwide. Studies that determine the most effective interventions for persistent pain in older adults in general and in the LTC setting in particular are needed as well. In addition, more randomized controlled trials should be undertaken to evaluate pharmacologic, nonpharmacologic, and combined therapies in this often complex population with comorbidities.

Based on our review of the literature, multifaceted approaches and quality improvement initiatives to integrate pain management changes at the institutional level are most likely to be helpful. Patients and families should engage in decision-making with providers regarding potential pharmacologic treatments whenever possible, weighing the benefits and burdens of therapies, and informing providers about their personal values and concerns. Appropriate patient and family involvement will ensure that patient goals remain at the center of care.


This study was supported in part by grants awarded to Dr. Ritchie from the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the National Institutes of Health, the Health Resources and Services Administration, and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.


Dr. Farless reports no relevant financial relationships.



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