Why is pain management suboptimal on surgical wards?
Background. During a patient’s stay on a surgical ward, nurses hold a great deal of responsibility for pain management, especially when analgesics are prescribed on a PRN (‘as needed’) basis. Despite the availability of effective analgesics and new technologies for drug administration, studies continue to demonstrate suboptimal pain management.
Aim of the study. To identify perceived barriers to effective pain management in nursing practice.
Methods. The data are drawn from six nurse interviews and a survey of 180 nurses in 14 United Kingdom (UK) hospitals, which built upon detailed observations of nurses on surgical wards.
Results. In a question about possible reasons for suboptimal pain management, nurses identified a number of barriers that concerned organizational aspects such as workload and lack of staff, and also legal or institutional constraints. Nurses further stated that analgesic prescribing was sometimes inadequate, or that doctors or the pain team were unavailable to review medication. Further barriers that nurses may be less aware of were identified in a question concerning nurses’ reasons for not asking patients a pain-related question during drug rounds. Previous observations had shown this to be the predominant time for pain questioning. The most commonly mentioned reasons were that patients were asleep, on epidural or patient controlled analgesia (PCA), or had recently had an analgesic. Nurses’ replies also revealed that they relied considerably on patients’ nonverbal behaviour and used this to assess analgesia requirements. Nurses’ views and judgements regarding pain management were further supported in replies to a number of attitude statements and a question about the aim of administering analgesia.
Conclusion. The strength of this work is that it identified two types of potential barriers to effective pain management, recognized and more subconscious ones, and both need to be addressed before introducing systems aimed at improving pain management.