Funding to assist with story-telling approach to opioid tapering

A University of Otago researcher hopes whānau-focused storytelling could help support people taper off potentially harmful opioids prescribed for chronic pain.

Dr Hemakumar Devan.

Dr Hemakumar Devan, of Wellington, was one of 12 Otago researchers to be granted funding in the latest Health Research Council funding round, totalling about $3.1 million.

Fifteen Otago researchers were also awarded funding from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board, totalling a further $1.6 million.

Along with co-principal investigator Cheryl Davies (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Mutunga ki Te Wharekauri), of Tū Kotahi Māori Asthma Trust, Dr Devan’s team will use the grant of almost $1.4 million to co-produce a whānau-focused opioid tapering intervention for people with chronic non-cancer pain; and to evaluate the clinical implementation of this story-telling intervention in four tertiary pain services and four primary care practices in Aotearoa.

“Opioids are a group of medicines commonly used for pain relief. They are quite effective short-term, however, when used long term – more than six months – their pain-relieving effects wane off, instead there is potential for becoming more sensitive to pain and in some, it may lead to dependency and addiction,” Dr Devan says.

Chronic non-cancer pain is a public health burden affecting one in five New Zealanders, however Māori have a disproportionate burden of chronic pain and there may be inequities in opioid prescription for Māori, he says.

“While opioid tapering is recommended for some patients who are on long-term use with minimal pain relief, this is a complex process as tapering is associated with withdrawal symptoms and people need ongoing support in their tapering journey. Currently, there is no Aotearoa New Zealand research to understand opioid tapering for chronic non-cancer pain.”

Supported by kaumatua, the Māori-centred research will capture, create and share the stories of Māori patients’, whānau and clinicians.

“This will involve co-designing digital video stories with Māori patients and whānau across New Zealand using a group-based, digital storytelling method to capture their life journeys before opioid use, barriers and enablers during opioid reduction, and life after opioid tapering. We will also
collect clinicians’ stories to capture the challenges they face when facilitating opioid tapering consultations.

“Our ultimate aim is to help all patients engage in clinical conversations of tapering opioids by introducing stories of peers which they can relate to. Hearing from similar others through their tapering journeys may allow patients to consider opioid tapering for themselves in a way that none of their previous clinical interactions have,” he says.

Ms Davies says this is an integral study that has evolved from earlier research work with whānau and their community.

“We provided a safe space for whānau to begin sharing their journeys with pain and the harmful effects they felt from long-term prescribing of opioids. We feel extremely privileged to have this opportunity to continue this important research work and I am sure we will all gain valuable knowledge from hearing our whānau share their journeys with pain through digital video storytelling.”