The experience of pain is inherently subjective. One patient's rating of pain as 5 on a 10-point scale could be another patient's 10.
It's difficult enough for providers to assess pain levels in adult patients with the ability to describe their pain and compare it with past experiences. It's much harder in treating children or adults with dementia, who often are not able to verbally describe their pain. Now some researchers are seeking a technological way to objectively measure pain.
Dr. Jeannie Huang, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego, said she finds it distressing not being able to accurately assess her young patients' pain. Some of her patients have stayed in the hospital longer because clinicians did not accurately assess their pain, identify the source and treat the problem effectively. Huang wants to find an unbiased way to assess pain in patients who can't tell her.
A 2008 study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that nurses' estimates of pediatric patients' pain were only moderately correlated with patients' self-reported pain rating.
“The bottom line is (that) what the patient is experiencing is what's most important,” said Bob Twillman, executive director of the American Academy of Pain Management. “To the extent that we're able to elicit that determines whether we'll be able to give (patients) the relief they need.”
Huang, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego, solicited the help of Marian Bartlett, a research professor at UCSD's Institute for Neural Computation. Bartlett was using facial recognition software to teach autistic children how to recognize and interpret facial expressions. Huang wondered whether the same software could be used to measure pain.