Systematic use of pain intensity scales is considered a prerequisite for treatment of pain in hospitalized children, but already a decade ago, attention was called to the lack of robust evidence supporting the presumed positive association between their use and desired outcomes.
To re-evaluate the evidence supporting the association between the use of pain scales and patient and process outcomes in hospitalized children.
Systematic literature review.
The online databases PubMed and Cumulative Index of Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) were searched from inception to April 15, 2020.
We performed single screening of all records followed by duplicate screening of full texts of interest with a disagreement procedure in place. Studies where the authors evaluated outcomes from the use of self-report or behavioral-based pain scales in children 0–18 years in a hospital setting were included. Emergency care settings were excluded.
In a majority of the 32 included studies, complex interventions that included one or more pain scales were evaluated. Process outcomes (e.g., documentation) were most frequently studied. Interventions were commonly associated with improved documentation of pain assessment, while the effect on pain management documentation was inconsistent. However, improvements in process outcomes did not necessarily result in better patient outcomes. In regard to patient outcomes (e.g., pain intensity, side effects, or satisfaction with treatment), some authors reported reduced pain intensity on group level, but the effect on other functional outcomes, child and parent satisfaction, and aspects of safety were inconsistent. Methodological issues, e.g., weak study designs and small samples, biased the results, and it was not possible to determine how pain scales contributed to the overall effects since they were studied as part of complex interventions.
Although both a theoretically founded understanding of pain and clinical experience suggest that the use of pain scales will make a difference for hospitalized children with pain, there is still limited evidence to support this notion.
As pain scales have been almost exclusively studied as an aspect of complex interventions, research that determines the active ingredient(s) in a complex intervention and their joint and individual effects on outcomes that are meaningful for the child (for example reduced pain intensity or improved function) are urgently needed.