More targeted treatment for back pain proves more effective and cheaper, according to new findings.
In a study published online first in The Lancet, researchers used a ‘stratified approach’ to the management of back pain in primary care.
Stratified care involves a tailored approach that challenges the existing one-size-fits-all primary care strategy suggested in current guidelines, which leave as many as 80% of people still reporting pain or disability a year after consulting their general practitioner.
Around 9% of adults in the UK visit their general practitioner about back pain every year. Although trials have reported the benefits of a wide range of treatments such as exercise and cognitive behavioural approaches compared with standard care, a lack of evidence about which patients are likely to benefit from which interventions has reduced the efficiency of primary care management.
The STarT Back trial was designed to compare the clinical and cost effectiveness of stratified management—allocating patients to different treatment pathways based on their prognosis (low, medium, or high risk of poor outcome)—with that of current best practice.
The trial was carried out at the Arthritis Research UK Primary Care Centre, Keele University, Stoke-on-Trent, UK, and was funded by Arthritis Research UK.
The investigators recruited 851 adults with back pain between June 2007, and November 2008, from ten general practices in England. Patients were randomly assigned to stratified care (intervention group; 568) or current best practice of advice, exercise and manual therapy delivered by physiotherapists (control group; 283).
The Roland and Morris Disability Questionnaire was used to measure whether the treatments helped relieve back pain and improved patients’ ability to function. The researchers also estimated the cost effectiveness of the two strategies in terms of quality adjusted life years (QALYS) and health-care costs.
At both 4 months and 12 months, patients in the intervention group showed a significant improvement in disability scores compared with patients in the control group. Additionally, at 12 months the intervention group were more likely to report reduced fear, less depression, and better general health.
Patients given the stratified care intervention were also significantly more likely to be satisfied with their treatment compared with current best care at 4 months, and took fewer days off work because of back pain over the 12 month study period.
The stratified management intervention also resulted in a greater health benefit that was achieved at a lower average health-care cost, an average saving of £34.39 per patient.
“For many years, the potential for targeting treatment has been emphasised as a research priority for back pain. The results of this trial provide the first evidence that a stratified management approach to target the provision of primary care significantly improves patient outcomes and is associated with substantial economic benefits compared with current best practice,” say the authors.
They conclude: “The findings of this study represent an important advance in primary care management of back pain, and have important implications for commissioners and providers of services for back pain.”