Perth family’s pain relief for doctors

Moira and Geoff Churack with daughters Danielle, left, Simonne and Emma

Medical Forum editor Cathy O’Leary first spoke to retired car dealer Geoff Churack in 2013, when he boldly put up $1 million to better equip WA doctors to help patients struggling with chronic pain. Now, a decade later, he has just made one of the biggest donations of its kind in Australia, to keep this education going permanently.

WA’s medical profession has five million reasons to thank a retired Perth businessman and his family when it comes to better understanding and treating chronic pain.

Geoff Churack and his wife Moira, supported by their three adult daughters, have donated $5 million to the University of Notre Dame and its school of medicine – the biggest gift in the university’s history and one of the largest philanthropic donations of its type in Australia.

The money will be used partly to better educate doctors and medical students in the area of chronic pain, which costs the Australian economy $35 billion a year in lost productivity as well as making life a misery for many people.

During his workaing life, 85-year-old Mr Churack owned and operated several highly successful car dealerships across WA. In more recent years, he has been fighting his own battle with chronic pain, living with the debilitating condition, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). 

There is no cure for CRPS, which leaves sufferers in almost constant and, at times, excruciating pain.

After his diagnosis, Mr Churack did the rounds of doctors to try to get relief from crippling aches in his leg, which he blamed on sports injuries in his younger days and unsuccessful back surgery for his chronic neuropathic pain.

Knowledge gap

But he was surprised by how little his doctors knew about chronic pain and the long-term effects it can have on mental health and wellbeing.

Chronic pain is defined as constant daily pain for three months or more in the past six months. The most common types are osteoarthritis and back issues, followed by musculoskeletal problems, other arthritic conditions and cancer.

Instead of feeling defeated, Mr Churack and his wife decided to help change the local landscape in how chronic pain was managed in the hope it could also bring relief to some of the 3.5 million Australians affected by it.

The couple initially donated $1 million to Notre Dame in 2013 to establish the Churack Chair of Chronic Pain Education and Research, in partnership with St John of God Subiaco Hospital. The key inaugural position was filled in 2015 by pain specialist Professor Eric Visser.

The family has now given another $4 million to permanently endow the chair role.

Notre Dame Vice Chancellor Professor Francis Campbell said the family had made an extraordinary gift to its school of medicine, in turn helping those who live with chronic pain and who were desperate for a breakthrough that could help reduce their suffering.

“This gift will ensure the Churack Chair can continue to focus on improving education and awareness about chronic pain, particularly among medical professionals,” Professor Campbell said.

“A PhD study funded by the Chair found that Australian medical students spent just 20 hours on average learning about the causes and treatment of pain during their training. 

“Notre Dame’s school of medicine has since amended its syllabus to include a much stronger focus on chronic pain, which includes having our students spend time at St John of God Subiaco Hospital’s pain management service.

“These are important developments that ensure our graduates enter the workforce equipped with increased levels of knowledge, empathy and compassion to be able to assist those living with chronic pain.”

Mr Churack said that in the early days of his battle with pain, it became clear that the problem began in medical schools, which had traditionally placed very little emphasis on teaching their students about the physical and emotional impacts that chronic pain can have on a patient’s life.

“That is why I reached out to Notre Dame, knowing that they operate one of Australia’s leading medical schools, to see what we could do together to improve research and training in these areas,” he said.

“We were very fortunate to secure renowned WA pain specialist, Professor Visser, as our inaugural Chair, and we have already achieved a great deal under his leadership.

“But there is still so much more that needs to be done, which is why my family and I have decided to invest these additional funds to enable Eric and his team to continue their efforts for many years to come.”

Welcoming the endowment, SJOG Subiaco Hospital Chief Executive Officer Tina Chinery said the hospital played an important role in developing the next generation of medical professionals coming through Notre Dame.

Professor Francis Campbell, Moira and Geoff Churack and Professor Eric Visser
Experts onboard

“Our pain management team includes the largest cohort of accredited pain specialists in WA, who enjoy sharing their knowledge, skills and experience with Notre Dame’s medical students,” Ms Chinery said.

“It gives those students exposure to the latest diagnostic and treatment options being used by specialists who are leaders in their field.”

One of the Churacks’ daughters, Simonne Ventouras, paid tribute to her parents, describing their $5 million gift as an incredible legacy that was already making a real difference to the lives of people with chronic pain.

“My sisters Emma, Danielle and I are all so incredibly proud of Mum and Dad and we look forward to working closely with the Chair to ensure it continues to deliver high-quality education outcomes in this important area of medicine,”
Mrs Ventouras said.

In addition to training medical students, the Churack Chair supports research by masters and doctoral students from the university. Staff also work with other leading research institutions on clinical trials and other projects.

Professor Visser is currently involved in the largest-ever study of potential treatment options for CRPS, which is testing a new medication and brain retraining techniques. He also teaches at Notre Dame in addition to running his own private practice.

He said the impact of chronic pain on the broader community was immense in terms of lost productivity.

“But it is the human cost for those individual sufferers that is even greater, with pain making it impossible for many to carry out even the most basic of household chores, or even get out of bed,” he said. “That’s why research and education are so important.

“Research-wise, the major projects we’ve been involved with, working cooperatively with teams, initially at Murdoch University and then through the colleges, have been on nerve pain, neuropathic pain, and pain associated with lumbar nerve compression – the classic sciatica pain. 

“We’ve got some good studies on migraine and basic science. There’s pretty limited basic pain science research in Australia, so part of the Churack chair was to support some of that work, particularly with nerve pain.

“The second thing we’ve done is some clinical trials, and we’ve found that some vitamin therapies can be helpful in reducing the risk of migraine, and we’re doing this concurrently with Curtin University.

“We’re also doing a big study with NeuRA (Neuroscience Research Australia) in NSW into treatments for nerve pain, not just medications but neuro and physiotherapy treatments, so a lot’s been happening in the research space.”

Equipping students

Professor Visser said the main focus in education was medical students, but he was involved in education at all levels at Notre Dame, as well the other universities when they attended the hospitals.

“One of the PhD’s research is about students’ pain education – how to improve education and outcomes for medical students, how to best train them on pain, which is a core thing, so it’s been instigated into the curriculum, and it’s getting a profile in the examinations,” he said.

Traditionally, chronic pain did not have a big presence on the medical curriculum.

Professor Visser said one of the program’s PhD students found that in Australasia about eight or nine years ago, less than 5% of curriculum time had a pain focus to it – even though in all aspects of medicine, from psychiatry to surgery to general practice, a big component of their work was in pain.

“That was a key finding from Australasia and around the world that there was minimal pain content in the curriculum and considering that at least 20% of doctors’ caseload has a significant pain issue, there is certainly a disconnect between that and what’s actually taught.

“We haven’t measured it yet, but it’s a very strong impression that the newer cohorts graduating from all the WA universities – and we can certainly speak for Notre Dame – definitely have a much clearer core understanding of pain and complex things such as using opioid medicines safely.

“So, compared to my days as a medical student, they’re getting the message and there’s a lot more exposure to pain.”

For GPs too

Professor Visser recently spoke to dozens of GPs in Albany about pain management topics, particularly the appropriate use of opioids and analgesics in pain management. 

“We also spend a lot of time in GP education, and one of the projects we will be looking at is targeting education at the newly-graduated doctors – the interns and the RMOs – because that definitely needs some attention,” he said.

“We’ll be working with senior medical students and junior doctors, to give them practical modules to get them graduation-ready in terms of pain management.”

Professor Visser said the significance of the recent endowment was that it would perpetuate the current work and allow it to expand. Notre Dame was doing a lot of cooperative work with Murdoch, Curtin and other universities, which was vital for long-term success.  

“It prolongs the work, which we’re really only getting started on, and will also allow us to have more academic appointments and to work with allied health, because we’re not just talking about doctors and medical students,” he said.

“And with the extra funding, we can reinstate our basic science research post-doc that we had for some time before the funds came to an end.

“We’re definitely seeing the benefits coming through, and, again, some of the work from the PhD students suggests a lot of value to the knowledge of medical students’ and junior doctors’ about pain – and that’s something we’re now going to be able to measure.

“And it’s thanks to one of the most generous endowments of its kind in Australia, so we’re very lucky to have it here in WA.” 

ED: For more details about the Churack Chair of Chronic Pain Education and Research, go to