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The National Pain Report Closes its Doors: An Interview with Ed Coghlan

National Pain Report logo
Image courtesy of the National Pain Report

In unfortunate news, The National Pain Report, a mainstay of online pain-related journalism, reported in April that it is closing shop. I greatly enjoyed working with Ed Coghlan and his team to help further our shared missions for pain education, patient-centered care, patient protections for prescription opioids, and pain research. Here’s just one example of National Pain Report coverage that amplified our efforts to ensure patient protections and mitigate forced opioid tapering policy.

Photo courtesy of Ed Coghlan

Ed has much experience and wisdom to share with us. He was gracious enough to agree to be interviewed for this article. Below are his responses to my questions.

How long did National Pain Report run? 

The National Pain Report ran for nearly a decade. I was working with another “recovering journalist” who told me about Google looking for citizen journalists as a way to increase content. I had done some work in the chronic pain world. I wrote a couple of stories on people I had met and noticed that those stories generated more attention (clicks) than some of the other things I was writing.

That prompted me to pose the question, “Is there enough content to support a news site that would cover chronic pain?”

After nearly 4,000 articles and 8-million visitors, I guess the answer was yes.

Describe your role at National Pain Report

To use a newspaper term, I was always the founder and the publisher. There were others who helped to be sure, so my role would sometimes be reporter, editor, diplomat, bomb thrower. Sort of whatever the situation demanded. In the last several years, I was editor and chief content producer (along with many guest columnists).

Did you go into the National Pain Report with a personal history of chronic pain?

No, I have suffered chronic lower back issues for forty years, but the pain tends to flare up and then subside. So, it’s not chronic. I can hike, golf, and workout (three of my passions) most of the time.

My experience with chronic pain was born through some consulting work I did for Boston Scientific over a decade ago. I met a lot of interesting patients and physicians who were (and are) memorable.

What was the best part of National Pain Report for you?

Without a doubt, it is the people that we met. People who were suffering from chronic pain, people who were advocating for chronic pain and people who were treating chronic pain. They are a unique breed, full of passion.

I would read our commentary section and if someone intrigued me, I would reach out to them via email and strike up a conversation. Many of them became columnists and contributors; some of them became my friends. Almost all of them were (and are) really interesting!

What are you most proud of?

That’s hard to say. I guess it is that we made a difference. I was blown away by the response we received when we announced we were shutting it down. Hundreds of people commented either on the site or to me personally how much they both enjoyed and benefitted from our work. It made it worthwhile.

It was a real “pay it forward” experience for me.

What advice would you have for someone who wanted to step into your shoes with this type of service (or attempt something similar)?

Know and respect your audience. When I was a television news director first in Montana and then in Los Angeles, I think I always had a pretty good sense of what my audience wanted. I would get out in the community and talk to them, do a lot of research and try to listen to them.

I did the same with the National Pain Report audience and it evolved how we did our work. I think our audience understood that we tried to talk with them respectfully and directly.

That’s not to say they always agreed. When they didn’t, I heard from them, often in a very colorful unvarnished way.

What was your biggest lesson you learned through your National Pain Report work?

The pain community is badly fractured and often very isolated. There are a lot of pain patient advocates who simply don’t play nice with others. I would often opine that if there was a way to unify the voices into one, then real change could occur. It hasn’t happened.

I also often think of the potential for a real comprehensive change in how patients are treated that the National Pain Strategy and the recent HHS Report promised. It hasn’t happened and it’s frustrating.

The real leaders in chronic pain, the doctors, the mental health professionals, the patient advocates all agree that a comprehensive approach to treating pain will benefit patients.  

But the payers and many providers aren’t cooperating and too many advocates don’t want to work together to achieve real change.  

It’s a real shame.

What changes (if any) would you like to see in future pain news reporting? 

I think about this in two ways.

For people who are covering and talking about pain—and there are a lot of them in social media–I don’t think, by and large, that they do a good enough job of focusing on the need for comprehensive and integrated treatment. They have their agendas or are single-issue advocates (and sometimes, I might add, zealots).

Also, it must be said the opioid “crisis” has hijacked mass media coverage of chronic pain. Reporters mostly view the opioid story as a story on addiction, often because they are too lazy or otherwise not motivated to look deeper. Many pain patients have been caught in the crossfire of government overreach and resulting provider timidity, resulting in forced tapering or outright abandonment by their providers and real damage has been done to many, many people and their families.

What changes would you like to see in pain care?

More integrative care. I learned many times over what too many patients go through—a provider who doesn’t have the time (or will take the time) to understand their needs. Treating pain is not a one size fits all approach and as a result, it’s often trial and error. Our current system often doesn’t work for the benefit of the pain patient. It would be great to see that change.

Anything else you want to add?

I always appreciated the willingness that the Stanford team had in sharing their point(s) of view and advancing knowledge to our readers. Dr. Sean MackeyDr. Beth Darnall and Dr. Vanila Singh (especially when she was at HHS) and many others were available to share their perspective. It made a positive difference. Thank you!

Also, a tip of the hat to Geoff Sims (who ran the behind the scenes part of NPR) and Doug Lynch for being true partners in this effort.