Chronic pain, flawed healthcare system discussed at Star Lecture Series

Dr. Yvette Colon, assistant professor at the EMU school of social work, speaking at the third installment of the EMU Honors College Star Lecture Series on Tuesday, Dec. 6. The central topic of the 2016-2017 series is "With Justice For All?" and Colon discusses chronic pain and a flawed United States healthcare system. 

With one hundred million people in the United States suffering from symptoms of chronic pain, the U.S. health care system was the main topic for the third installment of the Honors College Star Lecture Series at Eastern Michigan University on Tuesday, Dec. 6.

Dr. Yvette Colon, assistant professor at the EMU school of social work, served as speaker and described the one hundred million suffers of chronic pain as an epidemic; she questioned why there haven't been reforms to fight this statistic.

"Despite gains over the last few decades the U.S. health care system is the most expensive in the world and it still underperforms relative to ten other industrialized countries in the European Union including Australia, Canada and Sweden," Colon said.

Even though spending has increased considerably in recent years on health care per person, Colon cited that the United States still ranks last or near last among other industrialized countries for health care access and equity.

Colon stated that the United States government has taken steps to restrict opioid prescriptions to chronic pain suffers and mainstream media often inaccurately depicts opioid use.

"It's not appropriate to treat pain patients taking opioids as though they were drug addicts," Colon said. "They [government] make medical decisions based on the perception that just because someone is taking a specific kind of pain medication that they're establishing a system where they are addicted, in some way."

Opioids are commonly prescribed because they are effective in relieving many types of pain. For many people they have been very helpful in treating symptoms, but they can be dangerous when abused or used for extended periods of time.

Colon quizzed the audience by asking them common stereotypes of physical pain, stating that pain is not just a symptom and it is not meant to build character.

"Pain is complex and a subjective experience," Colon said. "The experience of pain is unique to every individual."

Because pain is complex and subjective it is can often be difficult to diagnose and treat; chronic pain is complicated because it persists beyond a specific time frame and doesn't always show as physical symptoms.

"It [chronic pain] has a limited physical pathology. Some illnesses have pain associated with them; we may not know why that pain is associated like multiple sclerosis and things like that, but it's there," Colon said. "Pain persists beyond the anticipated healing process. The pain system itself becomes damaged beyond the illness, beyond the condition."

Pain is an essential survival mechanism, but chronic pain often goes beyond a specific illness or injury and fires without a necessary biological system conducive to survival. There are also psychological and sociological components of pain, not just purely biological terms.

Health treatment is shown to be worse for people of color, poor people who are uninsured, elders, children, women, people who speak English as a secondary language, prisoners and people who have suffer from mental illness, according to Colon.

A member from the audience and Colon briefly touched on gender biases, as men aren't as likely to discuss symptoms that they perceive as a form of weakness. Women also are perceived to have hypochondriasis, a mental disorder characterized by excessive fear or preoccupation with a serious illness.

Colon said that all people have the right to be able to access healthcare and treatment for pain. She also said to hold insurance companies accountable for creating policies that disadvantage people with pain and other complicated conditions.

Insurance companies are currently implementing multilevel treatment, which provides patients with the safest and least expensive prescription or treatment. This multilevel system gives insurance companies the ability to override specific medications administered by a patient's doctor.

Insurance companies also take expensive medications off of their form letter, even if they are used for standard treatment of pain. Complimentary therapy, or therapy that a patient can use alongside conventional medical treatment, is also not usually covered by insurance companies.

Several audience members weren't aware of the lack of awareness for people who suffer from chronic pain.

"I didn't realize how much we can do to help and the lack of pain care, or how underrated chronic pain really is because a lot of people don't really pay attention to it," said Mary Helen Beacom, actuarial science major at EMU.

Lauren Williams, philosophy major at EMU, had some knowledge prior to the event because her mother has dealt with chronic pain; Williams said that the lecture was informative for people who aren't involved with chronic pain. She also stated that the United States needs to continue making strides in correcting the current health care system.

"The fact that we thought we were doing better, we were getting legislation that was helping, then it's starting to kind of fall apart," Williams said. "If we were already aware, we actually need to do stuff about this as opposed to 'oh things are being done, it's all good, we can just forget about this huge population that needs help.'"

Taylor Chase, political science major at EMU, said that the lecture helped raise awareness of several issues in the U.S. health care system.

"[I thought it] overall [showed] how screwed up the system is in dealing with all of the issues that go along with it," Chase said.


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