An estimated 50 million Americans suffer from persistent pain, yet most medical students have no courses focused on treating pain, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine.
"Untreated pain, tragically, is an epidemic in the United States," Dr. Louis Sullivan, former Health and Human Services secretary, said Monday as he announced an initiative to promote education on pain management at the country's medical schools.
The American Academy of Pain Medicine has developed a Web-based textbook that will be available to medical students without charge beginning September 2004. It covers the neurobiology of pain, patient evaluation and common types of pain, such as cancer and pediatric pain, and includes self-tests.
The project is financed by a grant from the Purdue Pharma Fund, a branch of the drug company that makes the painkiller OxyContin.
Dr. Daniel Carr, director of the project and a professor of pain research at Boston's New England Medical Center, said the textbook focuses on medical and behavioral treatments for pain, because they are backed by more research than alternative therapies such as acupuncture.
Only 3 percent of medical schools require students to take a course on pain management, according to a survey of 125 schools by the Association of American Medical Colleges in 2000 and 2001.
Developed with the participation of the Association of American Medical Colleges, the new textbook will be tested in the coming months at the Morehouse School of Medicine, in Atlanta; the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, in Farmington, Conn.; and the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, in Fort Worth, Texas.
While millions of Americans suffer from pain in silence, the abuse of prescription drugs is well documented. Nearly 3 million young people, age 12 to 17, said they had used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons at least once, according to a January 2003 government report. OxyContin, a brand name for the drug oxycodone, is among the most-abused prescription medications.
Nevertheless, project director Carr said, "The burden of undertreated pain dwarfs overtreated pain" in the overall society.