A Comprehensive Review of Telehealth for Pain Management: Where We Are and The Way Ahead


Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Donald D. McGeary, PhD, ABPP, Division of Behavioral Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio, Mail Code 7747, 7550 IH-10 West, Suite 1324, San Antonio, TX 78229, U.S.A. E-mail: mcgeary@uthscsa.edu.


Pain is generally undertreated in the United States, owing to a number of barriers including geographic distance from specialty treatment providers; functional disability that limits mobility; treatment-related stigma; economic limitations; and educational barriers. Pain undertreatment exacerbates pain chronicity and emotional disruption that can significantly erode a pain patient’s quality of life, and there is widespread agreement that pain care must evolve to address this significant problem. The growing field of telehealth (defined for the purposes of this paper as technology that allows for distance interaction between providers and/or patients) offers a novel opportunity to expand pain assessment, consultation, and treatment services beyond the walls of the specialty pain clinic, but there is limited availability of resources describing how to best use this technology to improve access to care. A recent literature review (September 2011) using universally endorsed MeSH search criteria revealed only 32 MEDLINE references focusing on telehealth for pain. This is surprising in light of the very large number of references covering telehealth (14,164 references) and pain (104,564 references), respectively. Of the studies available, there are very few randomized trials of telehealth pain care and only one general overview of e-health and chronic pain, which dedicates just a few paragraphs to telehealth. This manuscript represents one of the first comprehensive reviews of the current state of telehealth and pain management research and practice. The goals are to provide a rationale for the potential benefit of telehealth-based pain management services; describe the various applications of telehealth technology for pain management; orient the reader to cost models for telehealth; present examples of services in place; and offer recommendations for future research based on the current state of knowledge.