Initial management decisions after a new consultation for low back pain: implications of the usage of physical therapy for subsequent health care costs and utilization

Julie M Fritz, Gerard P Brennan, Stephen J Hunter, John S Magel
Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 2013, 94 (5): 808-16

OBJECTIVES: To describe the utilization of physical therapy following a new primary care consultation for low back pain (LBP) and to examine the relations between physical therapy utilization and other variables with health care utilization and costs in the year after consultation.

DESIGN: Retrospective cohort obtained from electronic medical records and insurance claims data.

SETTING: Single health care delivery system.

PARTICIPANTS: Individuals (N=2184) older than 18 years with a new consultation for LBP from 2004 to 2008.

INTERVENTIONS: Patients were categorized as receiving initial physical therapy management if care occurred within 14 days after consultation.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Total health care costs for all LBP-related care received in the year after consultation were calculated from claims data. Predictors of utilization of emergency care, advanced imaging, epidural injections, specialist visits, and surgery were identified using multivariate logistic regression. The generalized linear model was used to compare LBP-related costs based on physical therapy utilization and identify other cost determinants.

RESULTS: Initial physical therapy was received by 286 of the 2184 patients (13.1%), and was not a determinant of LBP-related health care costs or utilization of specific services in the year after consultation. Older age, mental health, or neck pain comorbidity and initial management with opioids were determinants of cost and several utilization outcomes.

CONCLUSIONS: Initial physical therapy management was not associated with increased health care costs or utilization of specific services following a new primary care LBP consultation. Additional research is needed to examine the cost consequences of initial management decisions made following a new consultation for LBP.

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