90% Of Patients With Back Pain Are Not Referred To Physical Therapy After Seeing Primary Care First

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Low back pain, along with death and taxes, remains one of the certainties of life. This condition affects over 90% of Americans and is often benign, but painful, in nature. Currently spending on low back pain is over 100 billion dollars a year and much of this spending can be attributed to unnecessary and unwarranted tests and interventions including early imaging (x ray, MRI, CT scans), advanced procedures (injections, surgery) abnd office visits. Consistent with many musculoskeletal conditions, early treatment of acute low back pain accelerates a patient’s recovery and may be our best strategy at reducing health care spending and excessive treatments. Our previous blog posts have highlighted the benefits of direct access to Physical Therapy services or patient self referral including cost savings of $1000-1500 per episode of care. Despite the clinical and cost effective benefits of Physical Therapy, a recent study highlights the limitations of seeing a primary care physician first for low back pain.

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Authors in the journal Spine analyzed over 170 million medical office visits for low back pain between 1997 and 2010 to determine health care utilization rates for this condition (Zheng et al. 2017). Authors found on average only 10% of patients with low back pain were referred to Physical Therapy after seeing a physician first and this rate remained stagnant over the study time period. Lower referral rates were found for patients covered by Medicare and Medicaid. Conversely, opiod prescriptions increased from 15% to 45% through the study’s 13 years of data collection. Authors found patients not referred to Physical Therapy were more likely to receive an opioid prescription.

Patients are encouraged to utilize direct access or advocate for a Physical Therapy referral for early treatment of their back pain symptoms.