The recipient of the 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award in Science works in clinical practice, education and research and develops pain education initiatives for healthcare professionals, children and families.
Fiona Campbell, ’80, ’84, the 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award – Science recipient, loves what she does – She works in all three pillars of healthcare: clinical practice (caring for children living with pain and their families), education and research.
As a University of Toronto Professor and Medical Director of the Chronic Pain Program in the Department of Anesthesia and Pain Medicine at Sick Children’s Hospital, Campbell is involved in pain education initiatives for healthcare professionals, children and families.
She is also Co-Director of the SickKids Pain Centre, was the first Co-Chair of the Ontario Chronic Pain Network in partnership with the Department of Health, is Past President of the Canadian Pain Society, and has been appointed by Health Canada to Co-Chair the Canadian Pain Task Force .
But Campbell’s bachelor’s degree from McMaster was psychology, and she went to medical school at Mac to become a psychiatrist.
“I wanted a broader understanding of the human body and mind, so a science degree and medical school were a good fit,” she says. “Given the impact of pain on mental health and the role of psychology in pain management, I feel like we’ve come full circle.”
“People who work in pain often have a personal story that piques their interest; mine was my amazing mom having a catastrophic car accident while I was in medical school.”
Campbell’s mother suffered life-threatening injuries and spent three months at Sunnybrook, from which she made a remarkable recovery, largely due to her physical fitness and resilient character.
“However, she had a spinal cord injury that left her with severe neuropathic pain that never subsided.”
After Campbell’s first stint as an adult anesthesiologist and pain specialist in the UK, an opportunity arose to move back to Canada to take up a position as a pediatric anesthetist and pain specialist with SickKids in Toronto.
“In 2003, just after the SARS epidemic, I joined SickKids as a brand new pediatric pain specialist and immediately jumped in to work with amazing clinicians, scientists and educators,” she says.
“What I hadn’t planned and didn’t necessarily see coming was my gradual development into leadership positions – local, provincial and national, particularly in the political sphere, which was immensely rewarding and a career highlight.”
“I didn’t have an ‘aha’ moment. I have become increasingly committed to preventing and minimizing pain in children and have been fortunate to engage in all three pillars of academic medicine – clinical practice, research and teaching – to achieve this goal. I love my clinical practice but have realized that it is the integration of these three pillars along with policy that will result in greater reductions in pain and suffering.”
There are myths and stigmas surrounding people living with chronic pain, she says.
“Broadly speaking, there are two different types of pain – acute and chronic,” she explains. “Acute pain arises from tissue damage and is a warning signal to protect our body from damage – a hardware issue, if you will – it is short-lived and disappears as tissues heal. Chronic pain, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily linked to tissue damage — it’s more of a software glitch within the body’s pain detection system, like a fire alarm that goes off when no fire is burning.
“Since we all experience acute pain from time to time, some think that chronic pain sufferers are attention-hungry, lazy or drug addicts and that they should ‘suck it’. In addition, chronic pain is invisible and leads to people not being believed, sometimes even by healthcare professionals.”
“Chronic pain, which affects one in five people, including children, living in Canada, is untreated, has a devastating impact on people’s lives and is an extraordinarily costly public health problem. It’s a nasty societal problem with no linear solution.”
As for why she specializes in pediatric pain, Campbell explains that she always dreamed of working with children. “Children are a unique and diverse population, wonderfully honest and very funny! We have five children of our own, so I feel comfortable around her. And childhood pain is an area of great need and a relatively new specialty. It was underserved and poorly funded.
“Pain has a major impact on mental health and quality of life: children suffering from chronic pain are twice as likely to commit suicide, interfere with sleep, and hinder participation in school, sports, and social activities. These things need to be addressed.”
Campbell’s deep insight into her goal of reducing chronic pain and suffering began locally with raising awareness of pain as a major health concern at SickKids, leading to the creation of evidence-based policies and practice guidelines, as well as quality improvement initiatives.
“I then became involved in provincial and now national pain initiatives, which led to various leadership positions along the way. My first foray into provincial politics was in 2013 when I became co-chair of a provincial pain advisory committee in partnership with the Ontario Department of Health. In this role and informed by evidence, I helped build capacity in the community by improving access to pediatric chronic pain clinics. We demonstrated that investing in pain services is associated with a reduction in health care utilization, and we were able to engage decision makers to invest $25 million in sustainable funding for tertiary chronic pain programs in the province.”
In 2019, Campbell was invited by the federal secretary of health to co-chair the Canadian Pain Task Force, which last year released the “Action Plan for Pain in Canada,” which includes 150 recommendations for government on priority actions to ensure people with pain are identified and treated supported and that pain is understood, prevented and managed effectively.
“We now have a Chronic Pain Policy Team in Health Canada that I hope will have the tools to provide coordination, collaboration and leadership that will enable improved access to care, increased awareness, education and specialized pain education, enable more support for pain research and infrastructure. Monitor the health of the population and the quality of the healthcare system and make sure it is all done with equity in mind.”
Campbell says she is now at the “twilight” of her career and when she begins to retire she intends to continue some of her work on federal and provincial systems to ensure Canada’s National Pain Action Plan is implemented .
“I will continue to advocate for better access to care, push for a public awareness campaign, better education and training, and more research.”
“I have absolutely loved my career at SickKids and the opportunities that have been offered to me! My leadership role in the political arena was a surprising peak that offered immense opportunities for innovation. It’s been very satisfying and will probably end up making the biggest difference of anything I’ve been involved with. I think perhaps my greatest career highlight is having incredible colleagues (including patient partners) without whom my work would not be possible and who bring me joy. What an incredible ride that was!”