USC Launches Online Pain Medicine Programs

Spine specialists may benefit from this first-of-its-kind educational opportunity.

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Pain science is an underserved area of medicine, though it’s the top patient complaint spine specialists hear. Historically, clinicians have had few—if any—options for advanced pain education, but that’s about to change. Two new online programs from the University of Southern California (USC) will give practitioners all over the world the opportunity to develop a greater understanding of pain medicine.

Beginning fall 2017, USC will offer a Master of Science in Pain Medicine and a Certificate in Pain Medicine. The programs, which are delivered entirely online, will provide clinicians a comprehensive body of knowledge on pain and enable them to better treat pain in their patients.

“These programs are designed to enhance your practice and understanding of pain,” says Steven Richeimer, MD, Chief of the Division of Pain Medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, who is spearheading the programs.
Young girl at the computer, with study books nearbyThe programs, which are delivered entirely online, will provide clinicians a comprehensive body of knowledge on pain and enable them to better treat pain in their patients. Photo Source:

Filling the Gaps in Pain Education

"To have pain is to have certainty; to hear about pain is to have doubt.”

It’s this quote, coined by Elaine Scarry, that Dr. Richeimer says illustrates why pain hasn’t been given the educational worth it’s due.

“It’s often easy for the clinician to become frustrated if they aren’t really involved in pain medicine,” Dr. Richeimer says. “There’s a certain amount of doubt of a condition that is invisible.”

“A lot of clinicians are more comfortable with a lab test or x-ray—when they can see something, and then clearly treat and cure it,” he continues. “But in the pain world, it’s invisible. And, we can’t often cure it completely.”

Dr. Richeimer says USC’s online programs in pain medicine fill three gaps in the global medical community:

  1. For doctors: Medical school pain education is minimal.
  2. For non-medical clinicians (eg, dentists, physical therapists, nurses, and pharmacists): These professionals receive little to no opportunity to get advanced education in pain.
  3. International practitioners: Outside of North America and Europe, there are even fewer educational opportunities to understand pain medicine.

A Closer Look at the Pain Medicine Degrees

The pain medicine master and certificate degrees are a joint venture between the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC—and the programs will leverage pain experts from both prestigious institutions as faculty. 

Below is a snapshot of the programs.

Master of Science in Pain Medicine
Completed in 37 months, this program includes 25 core courses along with 2 electives. Coursework will focus on a wide spectrum of areas related to pain, including pain conditions, neuroscience, psychological aspects, pain assessment and classification, and legal issues.

Certificate in Pain Medicine
Completed in 12.5 months, this program includes 7 courses derived from the master's degree.

Both programs align with the current National Pain Strategy (NPS) professional education and training recommendations, which focus on steps to improve discipline-specific core competencies, including:

  • Basic knowledge
  • Assessment
  • Effective team-based care
  • Empathy
  • Cultural competency

“When we first hatched the idea for these programs, the NPS hadn’t been released yet,” Dr. Richeimer notes. “So, while we didn’t create our programs because of the NPS, the NPS is exactly what we are trying to accomplish—it details the need for education to reach out to all the clinical professions.”

Spine Practitioners Ideally Suited for the Programs

The Master of Science in Pain Medicine and Certificate degrees are academic programs—they are not clinical certifications, licenses, or fellowships. As such, Dr. Richeimer says qualified applicants should be licensed clinicians, such as physicians, dentists, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, psychologists, and pharmacists.

Dr. Richeimer says spine specialists, in particular, are ideal candidates for the programs.

“The No. 1 thing spine specialists deal with is pain,” Dr. Richeimer says. “And, a huge segment of the spine clinical world doesn’t recognize all the options—and pitfalls—out there to treat chronic pain.”

“By the time it makes it to a clinician, spine pain is often a chronic issue,” he continues. “Spine clinicians—whether a physical therapist or nurse or spine surgeon—will come away from these programs with an enriched sense of how to handle these issues in their practices.”

Given the online nature of the education, spine practitioners from all over the world may participate. Dr. Richeimer says the program administrators are seeking sponsors for scholarships to provide opportunities to clinicians in parts of the world where income would not allow them to participate.

Reactions from the Medical Community

The groundbreaking nature of USC’s online programs in pain medicine have garnered interest and praise from leaders in the pain and spine communities.

“Your program is an important advancement for the field—an activation of the National Pain Strategy,” says Rollin M. Gallagher, MD, MPH, Editor-in-Chief of Pain Medicine, and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Anesthesiology Director for Pain Policy Research and Primary Care at Penn Pain Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We need a prominent school and its leaders to step up and commit to a program that addresses the glaring need for clinicians in our health care system to be both knowledgeable about pain, but more importantly, to be competent in pain practice,” Gallagher says.

Echoing Dr. Gallagher’s sentiments, Jeffrey C. Wang, MD, Chief of Orthopaedic Spine Service, Co-Director USC Spine Center, and Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Neurosurgery at the USC Spine Center says the universal yet complex nature of pain makes the new pain medicine programs vital educational offerings.

“This pain medicine program provides a structured curriculum on which to base appropriate understanding and treatment of pain, which will improve so many patients’ lives,” Dr. Wang says. “I am excited to see specific courses like this novel pain medicine program that will shed some light on oftentimes a very complicated issue and allowing us to be better care providers.”

The Fall 2017 application deadline for both programs is August 1, 2017. To enroll in USC’s online programs in pain medicine and learn more, visit

Updated on: 09/17/19
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Steven Richeimer, MD
Chief, Division of Pain Medicine
Keck School of Medicine
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA

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