Monday, March 18, 2019 Researchers Find 'Only Positive Effects' From PTs in Primary Care Role Get thee to a physical therapist (PT): according to a new study from Sweden, patients seeking primary care for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) who are triaged to a PT fare just as well—and in some respects, better—than those who are seen by a physician general practitioner (GP). It's a finding consistent with APTA's own investigations into the PT's role in primary care settings. Authors of the study, published in Therapeutic Advances in Musculoskeletal Disease, concede that, at 55 participants, their study was small. But they assert that their findings indicate that directing patients to PTs for primary assessment in primary care results in slightly better patient-reported outcomes related to pain, disability, and health-related quality of life (HRQoL) at follow-up, from 2 weeks to a year after initial visit. "Only positive effects were notable, and no adverse events regarding the triaging process were reported," they write. Researchers worked with 3 primary care health centers (PHCCs) in Gothenberg, Sweden, each serving a slightly different socioeconomic population (one serving patients experiencing generally lower socioeconomic conditions; one in a more affluent area; and one serving a more mixed population). PHCCs are the usual route taken by patients in Sweden seeking primary care, where patients are first assessed by a nurse, who determines a treatment pathway—including which provider the patient sees next. [Editor's note: want to learn more about how PTs are deepening their footprint in primary care? This 2018 article from PT in Motion magazine explores how the landscape is changing and offers links to APTA resources on issues related to primary care.] For the study, it wasn't a question of whether PTs should be delivering primary care—they were already doing that at the 3 participating PHCCs—but of how PT primary care affected outcomes. To make this assessment, researchers worked with nurses to randomly assign patients who normally would be referred to a PT to a control group that received "treatment as usual" (TAU) from a GP. The researchers then compared patient-reported outcomes from the PT and TAU groups at various points. Patients participating in the study were "working age" (16-67 years old) individuals seeking help for a new musculoskeletal condition; patients were excluded from the study if they required home visits, were receiving ongoing treatment for the current MSD, were seeking help for a chronic condition unchanged for 3 months or more, or possessed insufficient English or Swedish language skills to complete patient questionnaires. Both groups were asked to complete patient questionnaires on pain (0-10 rating scale), disability (Disability Rating Index), HRQoL (EuroQol 5), and risk for developing chronic musculoskeletal pain (Orebro Musculoskeletal Pain Questionnaire). Researchers also sought to determine whether the PT patient group developed different attitudes about responsibility for their MSDs, shifting more of that sense of responsibility to the patient and away from employers and/or medical professionals. Researchers asked patients to complete the questionnaires at initial consultation and 2, 12, 26, and 52 weeks later. Analysis revealed that while all patients improved at roughly similar rates, the PT group reported consistently better—albeit just slightly better—outcomes. The exception to that trend was in HRQoL scores, which improved for the PT group over the TAU group by a statistically significant margin. As for patient attitudes about responsibility for MSDs, the PT group tended to reduce what authors call "externalization" of the condition to health care providers, but a slight drift to greater externalization focused on employers after 1 year. However, researchers found that the changes in attitudes were slight. "This study indicates that early contact with both GPs and [PTs] can reduce the risk for patients developing chronic conditions with subsequent need for more comprehensive treatment," authors write. "As the effects of [PT] treatment were at least as good as TAU, it is clearly feasible to impose management modifications which can free medical competence for other patient groups. It is important to take care of even the group of patients with short-term or low-intensive musculoskeletal conditions to prevent development of chronic disorders." The researchers acknowledge that besides the small study population, the project also experienced patient dropout over time—particularly among younger patients in the PT group. Still, they contend, the findings support the role of PTs in primary care. "While it cannot be irrevocably concluded that initiation treatment by a [PT] is better for all patients with [MSDs] than [is] medical advice and treatment by a GP, there is nothing to indicate that this triage model for managing patients with [MSDs] in primary care is, in any way, detrimental to the patient health or worse than standard care," they write. "Triaging to [PTs] for primary assessment in primary care seems to lead to at least as positive health effects as primary assessment by GPs and can be recommended as an alternative management pathway for patients with MSDs." 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.