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  • Military System Study: PTs in Primary Care Provide Safe Treatment and Are Less Likely to Order Ancillary Services or Make Referrals

    While civilian health care policymakers and stakeholders in the US continue to debate whether physical therapists (PTs) should be included as primary care providers, the country's military health systems have marched ahead with the concept. A new study adds to the evidence that the idea is working, both in terms of patient safety and reduced health care utilization.

    Authors of the study, published in Military Medicine (abstract only available for free) and first presented as a poster at the 2019 APTA Combined Sections Meeting, frame their research as an exploration of the potential for PTs to address the nationwide physician shortage by lowering costs and increasing access to care. They assert that the potential for more team-based, effective care could be at least partially realized if civilian PTs were treated like their military counterparts and included as primary care providers. It's a position that APTA strongly supports in its strategic goals and is consistent with APTA's own investigations into the PT's role in primary care settings. In addition, in 2018 the association conducted a practice analysis aimed at determining the feasibility of primary care as a specialty area recognized by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties and the American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education.

    The study tracked 3 years' worth of patient data from the Malcom Grow Medical Clinic and Surgery Center (MGMC), a facility at Maryland’s Andrews Air Force Base that treats active-duty personnel and their families. MGMC patients with musculoskeletal complaints can choose their care pathway, receiving care through either a family health clinic (FHC) or the facility's physical therapy clinic (PTC). Authors describe the PTC as engaging in "advance practice" physical therapy that, in addition to its direct access status, allows PTs to order diagnostic imaging and lab studies, make referrals, and prescribe a limited range of medications.

    Researchers were interested in answering what they say is 1 of the main reservations about the PT as primary care provider—that patients would face increased risk of harm—and along the way wanted to find out what they could about the PT's use of ancillary services such as imaging and referrals. They analyzed data from nearly 250,000 provider encounters (207,241 from the FHC and 41,656 from the PTC), including information from an internal patient safety reporting database (PSR) that tracks "safety events" in which patients were exposed to or experienced various degrees of harm. Here's what they found:

    • Over the 2015-2017 study period, the FHC recorded 56 documented safety events, compared with 16 reported in the PTC. Adjusting for overall caseload, patients in the FHC were determined to be 1.9 times as likely to experience an actual or "near-miss" safety event (a potential safety event that never reaches a patient) as were the PTC patients.
    • While both clinics reported the majority of their safety events as near-miss, the PTC's near-miss events made up 75% of its total safety events during the study period, compared with a 50% rate at the FHC. A 72% near-miss rate is the MGMC’s benchmark.
    • Imaging was the most frequently used ancillary service in the PTC, but use rates were still significantly lower than the FHC rate, with 1 study per every 37.13 encounters in the PTC and 1 per 4.99 encounters in the FHC. Because of the frequency of imaging use in the PTC, authors believe that "pursuing diagnostic imaging authority may be of utmost importance if pursuing advanced practice physical therapy within a practice act or within a health care organization."
    • No adverse events were associated with the 1,817 thrust manipulations (197 in FCH, 1,621 in PTC) or the 2,910 dry needling procedures (PTC only) provided to patients during the study period.
    • Referrals to other providers were lower among PTs, with a rate of 1 per every 51.88 encounters, compared with 1 per every 3.06 encounters at the FHC.
    • Both the rate of prescriptions and orders for lab studies were dramatically lower among PTs, who wrote prescriptions at a rate of 1 per every 1,487 encounters and ordered lab studies at a 1 per 1,301 rate. Providers in the FHC had rates of 1 per 0.99 for prescriptions and 1 per 2.91 for lab work.

    Authors warn against interpreting the lower PT rates of additional service use as an endorsement of PTC superiority; instead, they are an indication of differences in necessary care pathways in the 2 clinics. Providers in the FHC, they write, must order lab tests "for other functions such as tracking disease progression or identifying proper [pharmaceutical] dosages," something that's not done as frequently in the PTC. Similarly, they write, "the number of images ordered by the PTC may be deflated if the patient had already received the imaging at the FHC."

    Setting aside those factors, they argue, the data show what they hypothesized—"that [physical therapy] has a similar safety profile to primary care within the specified domains of advanced practice [physical therapy]." Additionally, they write, their study supports findings from earlier research that found "significant reductions in health care utilization including pharmaceuticals and imaging services when patients accessed physical therapy first."

    APTA members Lt Col. Lance M. Mabry, BSC, USAF (Ret.), PT, DPT; Jeffrey Notestine, PT, DPT, ATC; Col. Josef Moore, MSC USA, PT, PhD; and Jeffrey Taylor, PT, DPT, PhD, were among the authors of the study.

    Research-related stories featured in PT in Motion News are intended to highlight a topic of interest only and do not constitute an endorsement by APTA. For synthesized research and evidence-based practice information, visit the association's PTNow website.

    Comments

    • The related CSM poster can be found here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330336849_Safety_Events_and_Privilege_Utilization_Rates_in_Expanded_Practice_Physical_Therapy_Compared_to_Traditional_Primary_Care_An_Observational_Study

      Posted by Lance Mabry on 8/13/2019 7:51 AM

    • For more information, you can contact the authors at: LMabry@highpoint.edu

      Posted by Lance M Mabry on 8/14/2019 11:04 AM

    • Wonderful article! Physical therapist are well versed in many areas. Especially musculoskeletal issues. The amount of unnecessary imaging other disciplines order has been alarming. I see no reason physical therapist can’t have more autonomy. Physical therapist training is very advanced. NPs, who are very valuable to our healthcare system, usually do a lot of course work online for their degrees, yet they prescribe and order imaging. We should at least be able to take some form of a course with an exam to designate certain therapist as primary care physical therapist. Hopefully, we will continue to gain traction in the primary care arena.

      Posted by Jordan on 8/14/2019 4:55 PM

    • I wish this study had been done 20 years ago, but better now than later.

      Posted by Bruce L Snow on 8/14/2019 5:44 PM

    • Will this also take 20 years to bring to reality in the civilian space?

      Posted by Rubin Issac on 8/15/2019 9:54 PM

    • I once saw a patient with a kidney stone who's father, an experienced manual physical therapist, had been unsuccessfully treating for quadratus lumborum syndrome. And he himself has kidney stones!

      Posted by Charlie on 8/26/2019 7:22 AM

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