The purpose of this study was to evaluate the impact of early and guideline adherent physical therapy for low back pain on utilization and costs within the Military Health System (MHS).
Patients presenting to a primary care setting with a new complaint of LBP from January 1, 2007 to December 31, 2009 were identified from the MHS Management Analysis and Reporting Tool. Descriptive statistics, utilization, and costs were examined on the basis of timing of referral to physical therapy and adherence to practice guidelines over a 2-year period. Utilization outcomes (advanced imaging, lumbar injections or surgery, and opioid use) were compared using adjusted odds ratios with 99% confidence intervals. Total LBP-related health care costs over the 2-year follow-up were compared using linear regression models.
753,450 eligible patients with a primary care visit for LBP between 18-60 years of age were considered. Physical therapy was utilized by 16.3% (n = 122,723) of patients, with 24.0% (n = 17,175) of those receiving early physical therapy that was adherent to recommendations for active treatment. Early referral to guideline adherent physical therapy was associated with significantly lower utilization for all outcomes and 60% lower total LBP-related costs.
The authors concluded that the potential for cost savings in the MHS from early guideline adherent physical therapy may be substantial. These results also extend the findings from similar studies in civilian settings by demonstrating an association between early guideline adherent care and utilization and costs in a single payer health system. Future research is necessary to examine which patients with LBP benefit early physical therapy and determine strategies for providing early guideline adherent care.
These are certainly interesting data. Because LBP is such a common condition, it costs us all dearly. Measures to reduce this burden in suffering and expense are urgently needed. The question is whether early referral to a physiotherapist is such a measure. The present data show that this is possible but they do not prove it.
I applaud the authors for realising this point and discussing it at length: The results of this study should be examined in light of the following limitations. Given the favorable natural history of LBP, many patients improve regardless of treatment. Those referred to physical therapy early are also more likely to have a shorter duration of pain, thus the potential for selection bias to have influenced these results. We accounted for a number of co-morbidities available in the data set and excluded patients with prior visits for LBP to mitigate against this possibility. However, the retrospective observational design of this study imposes limitations on extending the associations we observed to causation. Although we attempted to exclude patients with a specific spinal pathology, it is possible that a few patients may have been inadvertently included in the data set, in which case advanced imaging may be indicated. Additionally, although our results support that early physical therapy which adheres to practice guidelines may be less resource intense, we cannot conclude without patient-centered clinical outcomes (i.e., pain, function, disability, satisfaction, etc.) that the care was more cost effective. Further, it may be that the standard we used to judge adherence to practice guidelines (CPT codes) was not sufficiently sensitive to determine whether care is consistent with clinical practice guidelines. We also did not account for indirect or out-of-pocket costs for treatments such as complementary care, which is common for LBP. However, it is likely that the observed effects on total costs would have been even larger had these costs been considered.
I was originally alerted to this paper through a tweet claiming that these results demonstrate that chiropractic has an important role in LBP. However, the study does not even imply such a conclusion. It is, of course, true that many chiropractors use physical therapies. But they do not have the same training as physiotherapists and they tend to use spinal manipulations far more frequently. Virtually every LBP-patient consulting a chiropractor would be treated with spinal manipulations. As this approach is neither based on sound evidence nor free of risks, the conclusion, in my view, cannot be to see chiropractors for LBP; it must be to consult a physiotherapist.