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Int J Evid Based Healthc. 2009 Sep;7(3):173-80. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-1609.2009.00138.x.

Are we providing the best possible pain management for our elderly patients in the acute-care setting?

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Central Northern Adelaide Health Service, Royal Adelaide Hospital, South Australia, Australia.



During 2008 seven practice improvement projects were conducted in an acute-care hospital under the banner of The Older Person and Improving Care (TOPIC 7). Each project team examined a discrete aspect of care of the elderly and this project focus was on pain management and in particular assessment of the older person with communication difficulties.


The project intended to assess current practice and implement changes to match best practice in the management of pain in the older person within an acute-care setting.


A multidisciplinary team was recruited to conduct the project. The pain team with the other six TOPIC 7 teams was facilitated by a coordinating team. The project was divided into four phases. Phase one was designated as Describing, where the clinical issue was identified and focused to priority areas. It was decided to focus on the elderly who were unable to verbally communicate their pain management needs. Standards of practice relevant to the area of practice were sourced to guide practice improvement. Phase two was Measuring activity where clinical audits were used to measure current practice and compare this with the appropriate standards. Phase three was Taking action where a range of practice improvement activities were implemented including the introduction of the Abbey Pain Scale. The final phase was designated as Review and share where the impact of the project activities was measured with a follow-up audit and the results were disseminated.


Initial results showed a need for increased awareness of the difficulties in the pain assessment and management of older persons who cannot verbally communicate their needs. Seventy-eight per cent of patients had a documented pain assessment in the previous 24 h on audit. However, 83% of these assessments were only a general comment in the patient records. No tools were available for completing a systematic assessment that was reliable and reproducible. Sixty-two per cent of patients did not have analgesia administered 1 h before mobilising or having a significant dressing completed. Reaudit, posteducation sessions, showed an increase in the awareness in the complexities involved in caring for this group of patients. An alternate, specific tool (Abbey Pain Scale) was utilised well by staff and acted as a prompt in reminding staff to assess the pain levels of their elderly patients.


Globally, pain in the older person is poorly managed. Pain in older persons who are unable to communicate or who have difficulty in communicating their needs is even more poorly managed. However, the availability of an appropriate tool and an increased awareness of this issue can have a significant and real impact on the pain management of this group of patients.

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