Most episodes of low back pain are considered non-specific in nature, with the vast majority resolving within 2 weeks and almost all resolving within 6 weeks regardless of the medical intervention. Recently published clinical guidelines have clearly delineated a limited set of circumstances that would indicate the need for specialist referral. The purpose of this study was to describe the healthcare utilization and physician referral patterns for new-onset, uncomplicated, low back workers' compensation disability cases randomly selected from a large insurance carrier data source. The provision of care in urgent care centers and emergency departments for both initial and main sources of care occurred more frequently than was probably indicated. For this selected group of uncomplicated low back pain cases, specialist care was provided more commonly than would be expected or indicated (36% of the sample was seen by a surgeon, while only 2% received surgery). In addition, referral to specialists (other than occupational medicine specialists) was often made sooner than would be expected or indicated, with a median of 13 days for such referrals. Such overutilization of resources can reasonably be expected to increase overall medical costs.
From the Occupational Health Program, Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Mass. (Dr Tacci, Dr Christiani) and the Liberty Mutual Research Center for Safety and Health, Hopkinton, Mass. (Ms Webster, Ms Hashemi).
Address correspondence to: Barbara Webster, Liberty Mutual Research Center for Safety and Health, 71 Frankland Road, Hopkinton, MA 01748.