Each year over five million people develop chronic non-malignant pain and can experience healthcare as an adversarial struggle. The aims of this study were: (1) to bring together qualitative evidence syntheses that explore patients’ experience of living with chronic non-malignant pain and develop conceptual understanding of what it is like to live with chronic non-malignant pain for improved healthcare; (2) to undertake the first mega-ethnography of qualitative evidence syntheses using the methods of meta-ethnography.
We used the seven stages of meta-ethnography refined for large studies. The innovation of mega-ethnography is to use conceptual findings from qualitative evidence syntheses as primary data. We searched 7 bibliographic databases from inception until February 2016 to identify qualitative evidence syntheses that explored patients’ experience of living with chronic non-malignant pain.
We identified 82 potential studies from 556 titles, screened 34 full text articles and included 11 qualitative evidence syntheses synthesising a total of 187 qualitative studies reporting more than 5000 international participants living with chronic pain. We abstracted concepts into 7 conceptual categories: (1) my life is impoverished and confined; (2) struggling against my body to be me; (3) the quest for the diagnostic ‘holy grail’; (4) lost personal credibility; (5) trying to keep up appearances; (6) need to be treated with dignity; and (7) deciding to end the quest for the grail is not easy. Each conceptual category was supported by at least 7 of the 11 qualitative evidence syntheses.
This is the first mega-ethnography, or synthesis of qualitative evidence syntheses using the methods of meta-ethnography. Findings help us to understand that the decision to end the quest for a diagnosis can leave patients feeling vulnerable and this may contribute to the adversarial nature of the clinical encounter. This knowledge demonstrates that treating a patient with a sense that they are worthy of care and hearing their story is not an adjunct to, but integral to health care.