A university project given nearly £300,000 of taxpayers’ money to research chronic pain has been criticised amid claims that the Scottish Government is failing hundreds of desperately ill patients.
A freedom of information request by The Ferret revealed that a data project at Dundee University has been given £273,000 from the Scottish Government since 2015.
The aim of the research is to produce data to “inform national pain service improvement”. But critics say the money could have been used to deliver urgently needed frontline services while expressing concern that funding for the project came as a grant instead of a public contract being tendered out.
Criticism has also been levelled at the body responsible for the data project – the Scottish Government’s National Advisory Committee for Chronic Pain – which has been branded a “talking shop”.
The scale of Scotland’s chronic pain crisis was brought into focus last month when new figures for the final quarter of 2018 revealed that 399 patients waited more than six months for an appointment at a pain clinic after an initial referral. The Scottish Government’s target is 18 weeks.
Last year NHS Grampian patients were told they must wait 40 weeks for treatment due to staff shortages and some patients have attempted suicide after prolonged waits for treatment.
Academics at Dundee University have been advising the Scottish Government on chronic pain issues since 2014.
In 2015 the Scottish Government commissioned the Division of Population Health and Genomics at Dundee University in to produce a dataset “to address the lack of standardised measurement of chronic pain in Scotland, and of services provided to manage chronic pain”.
The research was funded through a grant from the planning and quality division within the Scottish Government’s Directorate for Healthcare Quality and Improvement.
The Scottish Government said the money was allocated “for a service improvement project” and was not tendered out because it was not a public contract. But critics have questioned the data project and a lack of transparency over its funding.
Ian Semmons, chairman of Action on Pain said the data project is “unnecessary because all it is doing is highlighting issues that are already well known – that there are very long waiting lists, there are insufficient staff, the various health boards operate in different ways in terms of their approach to pain management.”
He said the money would be far better spent in trying to recruit more pain management healthcare professionals to deal with the “ever increasing waiting lists”.
“I think that money should have been allocated to human resources rather than this data,” Semmons continued. “Our understanding is that this money – the grant – wasn’t put out to open tender – so from our perspective it appears to be a bit of a closed shop, which is disappointing to say the least.”
Miles Briggs MSP, Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health and co-chair of the Scottish Parliament cross party group on chronic pain said there were “growing concerns around the use and allocation of the Scottish Government funding for the data project at Dundee University and its supervision by the National Advisory Committee for Chronic Pain”.
He added: “Chronic pain patients across Scotland are getting tired of the endless talking shops and pledges of action to improve access services and address growing waiting times. All we see is talk when we need to see a focus on NHS staff to help deliver chronic pain services.
“It is clear we need to see a new approach for the delivery of services to patients with chronic pain and for SNP ministers to invest in access to clinics and redesign services to meet the increasing demand.”
This is another example showing chronic pain sufferers being constantly let down by this government. Elaine Smith, MSP
Labour’s Elaine Smith MSP, co-convener of the cross-party group on chronic pain, said: “This is another example showing chronic pain sufferers being constantly let down by this government. The government’s advisory committee should be concentrating on advancing measures and immediate solutions for the current issues which have been consistently raised by chronic pain sufferers, such as intolerable waiting times.
“There are many more areas of research that could benefit chronic pain patients such as the work being undertaken by mesh specialist Dr Veronikis; research into the insufficient knowledge of thyroid conditions and treatment, and research into the effects of the removal of inpatient homeopathy treatment.”
In reply, however, the University of Dundee defended its project and said it had “already led to a number of outcomes that are having an impact on the lives of patients”.
“These include the development of guidelines for the treatment of chronic pain in young people and feeding into the national chronic pain prescribing strategy, specifically aiming to reduce or support the number of patients on long-term opioid prescriptions,” a spokesman for the university said.
He added: “At a time when a growing number of Scots are experiencing chronic pain and future workforce planning is a major issue, it is essential we develop sustainable pain services in Scotland, not just short-term fixes that benefit only a small number of patients within a small number of areas.
“As funding amounts to around £54,000 per year over a five-year period, diverting this sum to frontline services – while no doubt welcome for a limited number of patients – would have little impact on the sheer scale of the chronic pain problem Scotland faces.
“Major improvements in cancer medicine and survival rates were in part driven by a huge amount of data work that took place. When this work began very little was known about how survivorship rates were influenced by local variations in the level of care provided.
“Once best practice was identified and standardised measures of care designed, variabilities in treatment and survivorship were reduced. This project seeks to bring about similar improvements for people with chronic pain.”
The Scottish Government said the funding for the University of Dundee project was not subject to tender “as it took the form of a grant and not a public contract and was therefore allocated by the planning and quality programme budget for a service improvement project”.
“Living with chronic pain can be incredibly difficult for sufferers and we are determined to improve services for all those affected,” the spokesperson added.
“That is why we have funded essential work at the University of Dundee to improve the breadth, consistency and quality of chronic pain data available. This work will help to develop the necessary high-quality data required to drive improvements to services and reduce waiting times.
“Our waiting times improvement plan, which was launched in October 2018, will ensure that all patients have swift and safe access to the full range of services from NHS Scotland.
“The plan will direct investment of more than £850 million to substantially and sustainably improve waiting times in the face of rising demand for services.”
This article was published in The Herald on 12 March 2018.