“Sometimes you wonder, is this really true?”: Clinician assessment of patients' subjective experience of pain

Sangeeta C. Ahluwalia, Karleen F. Giannitrapani, Steven K. Dobscha, Risa Cromer, Karl A. Lorenz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Background: Pain is a subjective experience that must be translated by clinicians into an objective assessment to guide intervention. Objective: To understand how patients' subjective experience of pain is translated by primary care clinicians into an objective clinical assessment of pain to effectively guide intervention. Methods: We conducted nine multidisciplinary focus groups with a combined total of 60 Veteran affair (VA) primary care providers and staff from two large VA medical centers in California and Oregon. We used content analysis methods to identify key themes pertaining to clinical assessment of a subjective experience. Results: We present four emergent themes. Theme 1: Pain is a highly individualized and subjective experience not adequately captured by a simple numeric scale; Theme 2: Conflict commonly exists between the patient's reported experience of pain and the clinician's observations and expectations of pain; Theme 3: Providers attempt to recalibrate the patient's reported experience to reflect their own understanding of pain; and Theme 4: Providers perceive that some patients may overreport their pain because they do not know how to standardize their subjective experience. Conclusions: A persistent challenge to pain assessment and management is how clinicians reconcile a patient's subjective self-reported experience with their own clinical assessment and personal biases. Future work should explore these themes from the patient perspective.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1048-1053
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020


  • experience
  • health care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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