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Transdisciplinary Collaboration Could Change the Future of Pain Research

September 18, 2015

Challenging conventional approaches to pain management, and developing and testing new, innovative, integrated treatment programs tailored to meet individual patients’ needs is this group’s collaborative goal.

“People with pain are finally getting the attention they deserve,” says Dr. Gert Brønfort, a professor and senior researcher at the Center who has studied chronic pain for more than 30 years. “Pain is a huge burden to patients and society, and we need to do a better job in managing it.” With pain one of the leading reasons Americans use complementary and integrative therapies, he sees the Center being well-poised to collaborate with faculty from other disciplines. “Pain is part of the human condition,” says Brønfort. “Everybody experiences it at some point in their lives.” This was recently confirmed by a study funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which found that more than 1 in 10 Americans experience pain every day, and nearly 1 in 5 have pain that is severe.

Dr. Joyce Wahr, professor and medical director of the University’s Pre-operative Assessment Center in the Department of Anesthesiology, is also a key player on the new team. “Because pain involves such a complex interplay of psychological, physiological, genetic, and environmental factors, optimal advances in treatment will occur taking a team based approach,” she says.

Dr. Roni Evans, Director of Research at the Center, agrees and sees an exciting opportunity to study the role of combining complementary approaches with conventional medicine to improve outcomes from a whole person perspective. “What is especially troubling is the effect pain has on an individual’s overall health and wellbeing,” she says. “By working together, we can start to address the person who is experiencing the pain, instead of being too narrowly focused on the pain itself. ”

Wahr notes the importance of effective collaboration, when individuals, each with a unique skill set and knowledge base, come together to develop innovative ways to explore difficult problems. Brønfort concurs and believes that a unique strength of this collaboration is that, although members come from different professional backgrounds, “we are like-minded in what we want to accomplish.”

Dr. Florin Orza, Division Chief and Medical Director of Pain Management at the University, is also part of the new collaborative. “Together, we can do research that blends the best of integrative and conventional medicine. We can approach chronic pain in a comprehensive way that makes a real a difference in patients’ lives,” he says.

According to Dr. Evans, “we have genuine enthusiasm around our shared vision of providing patient-centered care informed by the best possible research.”

Dr. Linda Hanson, a chiropractor completing her Master of Science degree in Clinical Research at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, was invited to participate in this collaboration as part of a fellowship experience.

Evans, who is Hanson’s mentor, emphasizes that developing meaningful working relationships with other disciplines is a critical part of doing high quality team science. “My professional network has expanded as a result of this collaboration and I’m getting involved in projects that examine pain from a different perspective,” says Hanson.

Based on her experience, and her current perspective as a student, Hanson hopes to see the development of new fellowship programs at the University that foster more interdisciplinary partnerships. Given her interest in the prevalence of costly pain conditions, she sees a real need for fellowships to focus on chronic pain. “Regardless of our professional discipline, we want the
same thing, which is to help patients live happy, healthy, more functional lives,” she says.

“Finding effective teams to provide suitable training for future scientists can be a challenge,” says Evans. 

She has been most surprised by how quickly this new group developed the characteristics of a highly functioning team. “We started identifying as a cohesive group that valued interdisciplinary collaboration focused on meeting the needs of patients from a whole person perspective.” Wahr agrees. “This is a mindful collaboration to better understand how to relieve suffering. We have been able to create a unique space where we can be free-thinking and brainstorm with intention,” she says.

“We all came to the table sharing in the principle that science must be done rigorously and ethically so that the research product is trustworthy,” says Evans. That foundation, coupled with a true openness to exploring pain interventions in new ways, has created an atmosphere where team members feel they can engage and solve big problems.

“Doing research these days is a tough business. However, collaborations like this fuel researchers’ enthusiasm and passion,” she says. “This is the type of environment scientists need to thrive and do great work.”

Beyond the design of innovative research, we are also envisioning how to more immediately integrate complementary care approaches into care settings. We envision “Integrative Care Coaches” working with patients, and in a coordinated way with physicians, nurses, and other professionals in interdisciplinary clinic settings. The Center seeks to start new fellowship programs to educate interested professionals to work in integrative care environments and pilot this exciting new role.

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The Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing blog covers a range of integrative health and wellbeing topics. For more information about our blog, contact us at csh@umn.edu