09/27/2013 03:22 EDT | Updated 11/27/2013 05:12 EST

For Many Canadian Doctors, Managing Pain Is 'Not A High Priority'

The headlines are full of breakthroughs heralding new treatments and cures for a host of debilitating and lethal diseases and conditions. 

But for the millions of Canadians who suffer from chronic pain, relief - let alone a cure - is still elusive. 

According to the Canadian Pain Society, one in five Canadians suffers from chronic pain. Yet treatment has not been a priority in our health care system; instead, people who complain of chronic pain are all too often derided as whiners. 

They say doctors are incredulous that their pain - which might have no apparent cause - could possibly be that bad. Or else they’re just counselled to grin and bear it.

That nonchalance reflects an attitude in western cultures, where pain is largely considered a sign of virtue and a test of character, says Dr. Fernando Cervero, director of the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain at McGill University.

Attitudes slowly changing

But Dr. Cervero notes that social attitudes are changing. Patients and their advocates are demanding better and more timely treatment for chronic pain. But the medical establishment has not kept pace with those changes. For example, veterinary students receive much more training in pain management than medical students.

The societal change in attitudes toward pain “has not completely permeated all the way to the medical schools,” Dr. Cervero told The Sunday Edition’s Michael Enright. “In a curriculum that is getting more and more busy with more and more discoveries in medicine – and we all have to fight for time in the medical curriculum – pain is not a high priority.”

Dr. Cervero, who will be speaking at an international symposium on pain at McGill University on Oct. 3, says more must be done to make the relief of pain, especially for chronic pain sufferers, a top priority in Canadian health care.

“It’s not right for people to suffer unnecessarily,” he said.

You can hear Michael Enright’s full conversation with Dr. Fernando Cervero on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition on Radio One this Sunday, just after the 9 a.m. news.