Michael Von Korff, ScD, has carried out groundbreaking research on the management and outcomes of chronic pain, depression, and other illnesses in primary care settings, emphasizing the role of patients in self-management of chronic illness. His work as an epidemiologist and health services researcher focuses on understanding how patients adapt to chronic illnesses associated with pain and psychological distress, including how they use health care services and medicines, and how they cope with illness in their daily lives.
Nationally known for his research on collaborative care for depression, Dr. Von Korff’s recent work has focused on trends and risks of long-term prescription of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain. In 2010, he and colleagues published the first study to link higher risk of fatal and nonfatal opioid overdoses to higher daily dose prescribed, leading federal officials to call for reduced opioid prescribing for chronic pain in the United States. Dr. Von Korff then worked with clinical leaders at Kaiser Permanente Washington to implement a multifaceted opioid safety initiative, which led to a 63 percent drop in the number of patients on high opioid doses. With funding from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, Dr. Von Korff evaluated effects of these practice changes on patient pain outcomes and opioid-related adverse events, finding a one third reduction in opioid overdose rates with reductions in opioid dose, but no further change in overdose rates with more complex risk stratification and monitoring initiatives.
Dr. Von Korff is also working on the Team-Based Opioid Management project, which is funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The project provides a public website with dozens of resources and tools that support safer opioid prescribing. Its centerpiece is the “Six Building Blocks”—the core components of safe, team-based opioid prescribing that have been implemented successfully in primary care settings across the country.
Earlier in his career, Dr. Von Korff co-led a series of major randomized trials examining various approaches to chronic illness management in primary care, including collaborative care for depression and interventions to improve self-care of chronic-recurrent back pain. He co-led the research team that developed and evaluated the TeamCare program for patients with depression and poorly controlled diabetes or cardiovascular disease, which improved depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease outcomes.
A major focus throughout Dr. Von Korff’s career has been studying mental-physical comorbidity (illnesses co-occurring) and how patients manage bothersome and disabling physical symptoms. This research has included a series of longitudinal studies of disability and health care use among primary care patients with depression, back pain, headache, orofacial pain, and other chronic pain conditions. He proposed a stepped-care approach to back pain management subsequently adopted by Veterans Affairs in their initiatives to improve chronic pain care in their clinics. He also developed widely used methods for grading the severity of chronic pain in epidemiologic and health services research.
Dr. Von Korff co-founded Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, an organization that has effectively advocated nationally for more cautious and selective opioid prescribing. He has published more than 400 papers in peer-reviewed journals on chronic pain, mental health, chronic illness, and disability. In 2002, the Institute for Scientific Information recognized him as one of the nation’s most highly cited scientists in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. He has served as an advisor to major global mental health studies conducted by the World Health Organization (see one here, and another here). In 2013–2014, he chaired the Population Research Work Group for the federal government’s National Pain Strategy which developed methods for defining and identifying “high-impact chronic pain” subsequently used by the U.S. National Health Interview Survey for monitoring goals related to chronic pain set by Healthy People 2020. He is an affiliate professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington and served as KPWHRI’s associate director for research from 1992 to 1996 and again from 1999 to 2005.
Disability, health care use, disease management, symptom management, physical-mental comorbidity
Opioid safety, back pain, headache, orofacial pain
Depression; depression and chronic disease comorbidity
Health care and medication use
Self-management of chronic illness, illness behavior
Anthony JC, Ritter CJ, Von Korff M, et al. Descriptive epidemiology of adult cocaine use in four U.S. communities. Problems of Drug Dependence. 1985, Proceedings of the 47th Annual Scientific Meeting, Committee on Drug Dependence. National Institute of Drug Abuse Research Monograph, 1986.84.
Fulton-Kehoe D, Von Korff M, Mai J, Weir V, Lofy KH, Sabel J, Tauben D, Franklin G. Surveillance of opioid prescribing as a public health intervention: Washington State Bree Collaborative opioid metrics. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2019 Aug 21. doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000001067. [Epub ahead of print]. PubMed
The latest on our research on chronic pain and opioids—and how the results influence health policy and clinical practice.
Discovering better ways to care for people who are depressed or have chronic pain, one of KPWHRI’s founding scientists has helped change health care around the globe.
A conversation with KPWHRI’s Michael Von Korff, ScD, as he retires after 36 years of transformative health research
In Annals editorial Drs. Sascha Dublin and Michael Von Korff advocate more caution in prescribing these medications.