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Listening to Pain

December 14, 2022 — 

It took only one year of undergraduate pharmacy studies for Dana Turcotte [B.Sc.Pharm/05, PhD/14] to know that she wanted to pursue research.

“I worked as a research assistant during the first year of my degree, and I think the early exposure just really sparked something in me,” she says.

Turcotte, who grew up in Winnipeg, says she initially “and somewhat naively, in retrospect,” applied to the College of Pharmacy because she excelled in chemistry and wanted to help people.

As a research assistant, she studied neuropathic pain management, focusing on complex pain caused by a primary lesion or dysfunction in the nervous system.

“Seeing how chronic pain could deeply impact an individual’s social, professional and family lives made me want to learn more about how to manage and treat it,” she says.

Later in her PhD studies, Turcotte began focusing on neuropathic pain management in patients with multiple sclerosis. She conducted studies to test and compare the effects of drugs that had not yet been approved for treating the disease.

Increasingly, her attention turned to improving patient care.

“It became clear that I needed to partner with those living with chronic pain in order to ensure that my research is responding to needs and outcomes that are meaningful for them,” she says. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Now an assistant professor at the College of Pharmacy and a clinical pharmacist, Turcotte is researching safer and more effective pain management and opioid stewardship approaches. For one of her upcoming studies, she will examine stigma surrounding opioid use and chronic pain.

“I wish that everyone – clinicians, researchers, the community at large – could recognize just how pervasive stigma related to chronic pain really is,” she says. “Far too often, the validity of a person’s pain is questioned because it’s subjective and often invisible.”

In this study, Turcotte and her team will combine survey methodology, patient partner engagement strategies and workshops to connect patients with others living with chronic pain.

“It’s not our place as clinicians, researchers or community members to make any presupposition about an individual’s pain experience,” she says. “Countless patients have told me about negative interactions with health-care providers across numerous settings.

“They often say that they feel judged for using opioids, and that health-care providers have labeled them, for instance, as drug seekers. Many say that they feel tired and ignored by a system that is supposed to be helping them.”

In another study, Turcotte and her team are working with individuals who use opioids to educate them on the risks and help them lower their doses, when appropriate. She takes care to include their perspectives as much as possible, and to approach research as a collaborative relationship.

“I want to include individuals with lived experience of opioid use and chronic pain to help guide the direction of my research,” she says. “I want the outcomes to be as meaningful as possible to these individuals.

“I hope to contribute in a multifaceted way to improved clinical opioid stewardship practices, particularly with respect to how we deliver care and engage with patients.”

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