For patients with a new episode of lower back pain, studies show a clinical pathway that begins with physical therapy rather than MRI reduces first-year treatment costs by 72%.
According to a study published in the journal Health Services Research, initial treatment costs for patients with low back pain were 50% lower when the primary care consultation was followed by a physical therapy referral rather than an advanced imaging referral. In fact, over time, using physical therapy as a first management strategy actually resulted in 72% fewer costs within the first year.
The patients who received physical therapy first were less likely to receive surgery and injections, and they made fewer specialists and emergency department visits within a year of primary consultation.
The authors suggest that advanced imaging may heighten patient and provider concern leading to a push for additional care, whereas physical therapy empowers patients to actively self-manage their condition.
Fritz JM, Brennan GP, Hunger SJ. Physical Therapy or Advanced Imaging as First Management Strategy Following a New Consultation for Low Back Pain in Primary Care: Associations with Future Health Care Utilization and Charges. Health Serv Res. 2015 Mar 16. doi: 10.1111/1475-6773.12301.