In 2013, almost 14 percent of our population reported moderate or severe pain and this proportion is likely to rise as prevalence of chronic pain increases with age. Undermanaged chronic pain can have significant consequences for our Canadian society as it leads to poor quality of life, disability, loss of workforce productivity, depression, and in some cases,  death.  In addition to the socially negative consequences,  chronic pain also carries high economic costs. It has been estimated that direct and indirect costs of pain in Canada are over $30 billion per year. 

Gaining a better understanding

One of the major challenges is that pain has not been well understood and this has led to a high proportion of people with chronic pain unable to find adequate relief or poorly controlled by available treatments.  A high proportion of Canadians have been prescribed opioids for chronic pain not related to cancer, a practice that has increased significantly in the past 10 to 15 years. 

Canada has the second highest prescription opioid consumption rate worldwide, just behind the United States. This has brought concerns about misuse, addiction, abuse,  illegal diversion of these drugs and accidental deaths due to overdose. New alternatives to better manage and control pain are urgently needed.  

It is expected that the demand for these treatments will rise sharply in the next few years as our population ages (the proportion of Canadians 65 years old and over will grow by almost five percent over the next nine years).  Governments can speed up the development and use of these innovative therapies by embracing innovation procurement policies, an area where The Conference Board of Canada has done significant work. 

A pre-commercial procurement program targeting the development of chronic pain solutions would boost the research and development of new treatment options. Pre-commercial procurement has been used successfully in other countries to achieve social goals.  There is an ongoing program of this type in Europe that is searching for new technologies to assist healthy aging at home. In addition, procurement policies can also be used to assess the value of these emerging and innovative technologies to manage chronic pain and make them accessible to the Canadian population. 

Promising new treatments are under development,  such as new drugs and devices, including virtual reality and gaming technologies. But given the increasing demand for pain solutions and the devastating effect pain brings at the individual and societal levels, Canada should look for ways to effectively and quickly translate these inventions and discoveries into effective mainstream treatments.