Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Bio-psycho-social Model: Challenges in Application

Hardly a day, a conference, a meeting, or a case goes by without a serious discussion about the need for a 'biopsychosocial' approach to injury resolution.  In fact, I've recently heard griping in some circles that the discussion has run its course.  "We get it... can we talk about something else now?"

Sigh.  We don't get it.  And we still have a lot of work to do.  I offer the following observation as proof of such...

A study hit my desk this past week from the Journal of Occupational and Evironmental Medicine and I'd like to ask for your forbearance as I share the abstract:
"The cost and prevalence of chronic work-related musculoskeletal pain disability in industrialized countries are extremely high.  Although unrecognized psychiatric disorders have been found to interfere with the successful rehabilitation of these disability patients, few data are currently available regarding the psychiatric characteristics of patients claiming work-related injuries that result in chronic disability.  To investigate this issue, a consecutive group of patients with work-related chronic musculoskeletal pain disability (n = 1595), who started a prescribed course of tertiary rehabilitation, were evaluated.  Psychiatric disorders were diagnosed according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Results revealed that overall prevalences of psychiatric disorders were significantly elevated in these patients compared with base rates in the general population.  A majority (64%) of patients were diagnosed with at least one current disorder, compared with only 15% of the general population. However, prevalences of psychiatric disorders were elevated in patients only after the work-related disability.  Such findings suggest that clinicians treating these patients must be aware of the high prevalence of psychiatric disorders and be prepared to use mental health professionals to assist in identifying and stabilizing these patients.  Failure to follow a biopsychosocial approach to treatment will likely contribute to prolonged pain disability in a substantial number of patients."  

Great study, right?  Isn't that the right message?  And we couldn't ask for a more specific sample set: Work related!  Musculoskeletal pain!  Disability!

Here's the kicker: this study was published in 2002 (J Occup Environ Med, 2002; 44:459-468).

I thought that had to be a typo.  It's not.  Sadly, even in these modern times in which information flows freely and ubiquitously, contemporary healthcare and insurance models still take close to two decades to translate research into clinical practice.  Some see this phenomenon as madness without method.  My own view is that the disconnect is driven not by laziness, lack of awareness, or lack of desire to apply new clinical knowledge.  Rather, the time lag between the establishment of evidence and its clinical application is created by the very hard work of leaping from intellectual recognition to actual clinician behavior change.  We sometimes fall victim to the assumption that chronic pain patients are the only constituency in need of behavior modification.  In fact, all stakeholders must adapt to evolving notions of clinical best practices; adjusters, nurses, claims leadership, doctors, attorneys, service providers, therapists, pharmacists, injured workers, actuaries, underwriters, brokers... all must adapt to both the clinical and economic realities of (what should be contemporary) chronic pain management.

I hear near unanimous intellectual recognition of the need to apply a biopsychosocial model to chronic pain care.  We must now do the hard work of applying this new knowledge.  For knowledge itself is insufficient to solve the problem.  One can know something to be factually true and yet fail to apply that knowledge.  Ever know it's raining... and still forget your umbrella?  Knowledge, when applied, is wisdom.  

And we have work to do.

On Twitter @PRIUM1


  1. Alas, talking about anything is the easy part. Changing habits, changing culture, changing process: that is real work. Great column, Michael.

  2. Hi Mr. Gavin,
    This is a great post. I find it interesting that the BPS model has become a new buzzword, kind of like "neuro". However, when perusing the news, it seems that is the case.

    Yet, the healthcare system in the U.S. has not adopted much in the way of applying the science to treatment plans. This is why I started the San Diego Pain Summit, the only multi-disciplinary annual conference in the U.S. solely focused on helping clinicians learn how to apply the research into practice.

    Rajam Roose

  3. Your list of "stakeholders" is revealing, as to where the injured worker fits in your BPS model.

    1. Perhaps you're right. The list represents those who need to change and adapt. Are you suggesting we start with the injured worker? Not sure I agree, but I know many employers who would.