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PLoS One. 2019 May 1;14(5):e0215148. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0215148. eCollection 2019.

An ethnography of chronic pain management in primary care: The social organization of physicians' work in the midst of the opioid crisis.

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Arthur and Sonia Labatt Family School of Nursing, Faculty of Health Sciences, Western University, London, ON, Canada.
Department of Family Medicine, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada.
Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada.
Department of Anesthesia and Pain Management, Toronto General Hospital, Toronto, ON, Canada.
Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada.
Women's College Research Institute, Toronto, ON, Canada.
Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada.
Clinical Public Health, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada.



This study reports on physicians' experiences with chronic pain management. For over a decade prescription opioids have been a primary treatment for chronic pain in North America. However, the current opioid epidemic has complicated long-standing practices for chronic pain management which historically involved prescribing pain medication. Caring for patients with chronic pain occurs within a context in which a growing proportion of patients suffer from chronic rather than acute conditions alongside rising social inequities.


Our team undertook an ethnographic approach known as institutional ethnography in the province of Ontario, Canada in order to explore the social organization of chronic pain management from the standpoint of primary care physicians. This paper reports on a subset of this study data, specifically interviews with 19 primary care clinicians and 8 nurses supplemented by 40 hours of observations. The clinicians in our sample were largely primary care physicians and nurses working in urban, rural and Northern settings.


In their reflections on providing care for patients with chronic pain, many providers describe being most challenged by the work involved in helping patients who also struggled with poverty, mental health and addiction. These frustrations were often complicated by concerns that they could lose their license for inappropriate prescribing, thus shifting their work from providing treatment and care to policing their patients for malingering and opioid abuse.


Our findings show that care providers find the treatment of patients with chronic pain-especially those patients also experiencing poverty-to be challenging at best, and at worst frustrating and overwhelming. In many instances, their narratives suggested experiences of depersonalization, loss of job satisfaction and emotional exhaustion in relation to providing care for these patients, key dimensions of burnout. In essence, the work that they performed in relation to their patients' social rather than medical needs seems to contribute to these experiences. Their experiences were further exacerbated by the fact that restricting and reducing opioid dosing in patients with chronic pain has become a major focus of care provision.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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