Chronic pain and opioid prescribing: three ways for navigating complexity at the clinical-population health interface

Publication type
Journal article
Sud A, Buchman DZ, Furlan AD, Selby P, Spithoff SM, Upshur REG
Date published
2022 Feb 01
American Journal of Public Health
Open Access?

Clinically focused interventions for people living with pain, such as health professional education, clinical decision support systems, prescription drug monitoring programs, and multidisciplinary care to support opioid tapering, have all been promoted as important solutions to the North American opioid crisis. Yet none have so far delivered substantive beneficial opioid-related population health outcomes. In fact, while total opioid prescribing has leveled off or reduced in many jurisdictions, population-level harms from opioids have continued to increase dramatically. We attribute this failure partly to a poor recognition of the epistemic and ethical complexities at the interface of clinical and population health. We draw on a framework of knowledge networks in wicked problems to identify 3 strategies to help navigate these complexities: (1) designing and evaluating clinically focused interventions as complex interventions, (2) reformulating evidence to make population health dynamics apparent, and (3) appealing to the inseparability of facts and values to support decision-making in uncertainty. We advocate that applying these strategies will better equip clinically focused interventions as complements to structural and public health interventions to achieve the desired beneficial population health effects. (Am J Public Health. 2022;112(S1):S56-S65.