Comparison of Physical Therapy and Physician Pathways for Employees with Recent Onset Musculoskeletal Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial.

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BACKGROUND: Life expectancy of the U.S. population will continue to rise, increasing the workforce demands in the treatment of musculoskeletal pathologies. With a declining primary care physician workforce, physical therapists (PT) may be in a unique situation to help absorb this demand.

OBJECTIVE: Our primary objective was to compare physical function between two primary care groups, a "physical therapy-led pathway" versus "physician-led pathway" in the management of recent-onset musculoskeletal pain at 1-month follow-up. Our secondary objectives were to compare other patient-important outcomes between the groups at 1 month and health utilization at 1 month and 1 year.

METHODS: A pragmatic randomized controlled trial with a 1-year follow-up was conducted, enrolling 150 university employees with recent onset musculoskeletal pain. Participants were randomized at first contact to either a PT-led pathway or physician-led pathway. The primary outcome was change in Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS) ShortForm v1-Physical Function 10a at 1 month; groups were compared with repeated measurement of analysis of variance and chi-square for both primary and secondary outcomes, except for satisfaction score at 1 month, which was cross-sectionally compared by independent two-sample t-test. At 1 year, healthcare utilization was assessed through medical record extraction, and healthcare utilization was converted to total episodic standard cost. Utilization was compared between groups using chi-square and Wilcoxon rank-sum tests.

RESULTS: Both groups demonstrated improvement at 1-month follow-up but showed no significant between-group difference in mean PROMIS scores at 1 month (PT-led pathway vs physician-led pathway, 2.04, [95% CI -0.28 to 4.36]; P = .082). At 1 year, there was no difference in healthcare utilization or cost between groups. No harm or misdiagnosis was found, filed, or reported by participants at 1 year.

CONCLUSION: This study shows equivalence in outcomes for two low-cost musculoskeletal care pathways with no risk of harm. These results reinforce other findings in the literature that support PTs as safe and effective initial providers for individuals with musculoskeletal disorders.





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Medicine and Health Sciences | Rehabilitation and Therapy



Peer Reviewed for front end display



Department of Medicine

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