In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. The data behind that decision is pretty startling: over 80,000 died from opioid overdose in 2021, and the numbers are going up.
What’s not talked about is that most people who start an opioid do so to manage a pain problem. Pain affects about 20% of the general population, and 11% of Americans currently take a prescription medication to manage it. You or someone you know is likely living with back pain, migraines, or arthritis. They’re our friends, family, neighbours, and others in the community.
The Gold Standard in Pain Management is Limited and Expensive
Unfortunately, there aren’t many options to cure people’s pain. Access to the gold standard in pain management, which is a multidisciplinary approach that involves psychology, physiotherapy, and medication, is limited and expensive. With more recent changes to legislation and guidelines, opioid prescriptions for managing chronic pain are significantly less common. Faced with a lack of effective treatment, many self-medicate out of desperation.
My career never began in healthcare or insurance. As a Computer Engineer, I’ve always been a data and analytics person. I spent eight years at IBM Canada and other tech companies before that, helping my customers make sense of the mountain of information being collected by their business systems. I loved my job, and I was pretty good at it. But the path I’d envisioned for myself changed when I saw how chronic pain could impact someone’s life so greatly.
In so many ways, my story starts with my mom. Her struggle with severe fibromyalgia was part of my childhood. I grew up with my mom telling her doctors and my dad, “You just don't get what I'm going through.”
Pain is invisible. It doesn’t show up on an x-ray. There are no blood tests for pain; no medical devices to measure the amount of pain someone is in. It's very difficult to explain to someone how much your body hurts. Unfortunately, the sad reality for many people, including my mom, is that their pain often gets dismissed. They get told, “It's in your head,” or “You're just depressed,” or “Take this OTC pain reliever and let me know how you’re doing in six months.”
My uncle, who’s since passed away, also contributed to my passion for solving the pain management challenge. Hospitalized with stage-four prostate cancer, his pain grew as his condition worsened. One day, as I was visiting him, a nurse came in with a clipboard and asked him to fill out a form. It was pretty typical: circle the parts of the body that hurt and describe the level and type of pain you’re feeling. Hands shaking, he did his best, then handed the clipboard back. Moments later, she returned with his morphine dose for the day.
Just like that. No conversation. No “how are you feeling today?” No “let me get a doctor for you.” My uncle filled out a form, and the nurse gave him the painkiller. Day after day. While I’d like to think that level of impersonalized care is rare, I’ve since learned that it isn’t.
Self-Manage; Not Self-Medicate
The more I researched chronic pain management, the more I realized how much poor communication exacerbates the problem. Like so many pain sufferers, neither my mom nor my uncle would be cured by better communication with their healthcare providers, but better pain management would allow them to live life more fully. In the end, I did what any data and analytics person would do: I built an app.
Manage My Pain allows people to track their pain and their activities in less than a minute a day. There are a lot of things that can contribute to pain. Driving more than usual. Minor house chores like vacuuming. What a person eats. Picking up a small child. A tough day at work. Emotional challenges.
The list is endless, but developing coping strategies is important for chronic pain management. Mental health therapies for pain have been shown to help people live life more fully. However, for many, if you suggest that they see a psychologist to help develop these coping strategies, they’re likely to think you’re saying it’s all in their head and get offended at the mere suggestion.
Facilitating Better Conversations About Pain Between Doctor and Patient
In many ways, our app acts as a person’s voice, asking the right questions so we can identify patterns and trends that allow a person to modify their behaviors. We give them the insights they need to better manage their pain and live their life. We also use that data to generate reports they can share with their doctors so they can get the treatment they need.
While they use our app, we explain how pain works in the body and introduce coping strategies that would typically be discussed with a pain psychologists. The objective is to make people feel more empowered to self-manage their condition and still live a meaningful and productive life.
The Business Case for Digital Pain Management
Before I go into the cost-benefit analysis of pain management, let me share a story of someone who got back to life with help from Manage My Pain. “Paul” was only in his twenties but already suffering from chronic back pain. He had a labor-intensive job and was missing work a lot because of his pain.
Initially, Paul tried everything from chiropractic care to pain medications. Nothing helped. After an MRI, his primary care doctor scheduled him for surgery. Now, as those of you in claims management know, major back surgery can add more than 12 months to a disability claim. Furthermore, back surgery is not a 100% effective way to address pain. In fact, pain levels for some people can worsen after surgery.
Manage My Pain Changed the Course of Action
Paul’s claims manager recommended our Manage My Pain app. Paul started using it daily and was able to identify those things that increased his back pain. Seeing how well he was self-managing pain and not letting it get in the way of his life, Paul’s doctor decided surgery was no longer the best course of action. Paul agreed.
Manage My Pain was recommended to Paul by a carrier that is one of our pilot partners: RBC Insurance. They piloted the solution over two and a half years with more than 200 of their customers. The project was designed to answer two questions: 1/ Would customers use a digital pain management solution and 2/ Could the solution help return customers to work faster?
RBC Insurance Case Study
You can download a more detailed version of the case study but here are some findings from the pilot project showing customer willingness to use a digital pain management solution:
- 59% of those offered a digital pain management solution agreed to use it, and of those, 95% agreed to share their data with RBC
- 52% of those who registered the app used it for at least 30 days. For comparison, the top-performing health apps have around a 15% retention rate after 30 days
- On average, RBC clients used the app for 4.5 months and recorded information three out of four days
- 59% felt their claims experience had improved
- 55% found it easier to communicate their experience with pain to their doctor
That answers question number one. (Would customers use a digital pain management solution) But how about question number two (Could the solution help return customers to work faster)? After all, for digital pain management to be a win/win for customer and carrier, it has to help reduce disability claims. On average, for customers on disability who used Manage My Pain, long-term disability claims were shortened by an average of 5.4 months; short-term disability claims were shortened by 7.5 months. As carriers know, savings like these can translate into thousands of dollars per case.
On average, for customers on disability who use Manage My Pain, long-term disability claims were shortened by an average of 5.4 months; short-term disability claims were shortened by 7.5 months.
Ready for the Next Phase?
At ManagingLife, we’re excited to continue to reach more people and help them live fuller lives. Working with RGAX and RGA, who are at the forefront of innovation in Disability Claims, has introduced us to health and insurance professionals who feel the same passion for the issue and compassion for people in pain. We are proud to be part of their journey to transform the life insurance industry through innovative solutions. If you’d like to learn more, reach out to us. We are always ready to talk about ways to improve disability and pain management.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my mom is using the app, too. Thanks to Manage My Pain, she and her doctor have a great relationship, and she’s living a fuller life. For me, that is the best success story I could ever ask for.