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Emergency Department Physiotherapist Reduces Imaging, Opioids, & Length of Stay

Takeaways for Outpatient Providers -While not unusual in Australia, dedicated emergency department physiotherapists remain relatively new. The concept is novel in other parts of the world.

Data continues to emerge regarding how it affects care and patient outcomes. In April, PLoS One published a first-of-its-kind study in this area. In addition to the important data collected, the researchers’ conclusions serve as a good reminder of how patients benefit when physiotherapy is used as a first-line approach in musculoskeletal pain (MP).

Dr. Andrew Pugh and colleagues prospectively tracked patients presenting with MP to an urban academic emergency department (ED).1 This emergency department used a dedicated physiotherapist only three days a week. This scenario enabled researchers to compare patients denied ED physio to patients afforded ED physio. Most patients presented with cervical, thoracic, or lumbar pain.

These results echo studies in outpatient care showing that access to physiotherapy for MP, especially prompt access to physiotherapy, lowers costs, rates of advanced imaging, the need for injections, and the need for surgery, while raising patient satisfaction.2-6. Immediate referrals to physiotherapy give patients with MP access to a musculoskeletal specialist for assessment, safe early mobility, and time dedicated to education and reassurance. Even among patients with concerns severe enough to merit an ED visit, many can be helped and satisfied with conservative.

approaches and without opioids, when a musculoskeletal specialist is available. Out patient physiotherapy is no substitute for an ED. Physiotherapists in an ED can quickly refer medical cases to the ED physicians. However, the current study reaffirms that many outpatient cases of acute MP are appropriate for immediate referral to physiotherapy. As guidelines indicate, physiotherapy is not a last resort approach after imaging, strong analgesics, waiting, etc.7-9 Physiotherapy works best for patients and payors when delivered as early as possible in the course of treating musculoskeletal pain.

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1. Pugh A, Roper K, Magel J, Fritz J, Colon N, Robinson S, Cooper C, Peterson J, Kareem A, Mad-

sen T. Dedicated emergency department physical therapy is associated with reduced imaging,

opioid administration, and length of stay: A prospective observational study. PLoS One. 2020

Apr 23;15(4):e0231476.

2. Arnold E, La Barrie J, DaSilva L, Patti M, Goode A, Clewley D. The impact of timing of physical

therapy for acute low back pain on health services utilization: a systematic review. Archives of

Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2019.

3. Childs JD, Fritz JM, Wu SS, Flynn TW, Wainner RS, Robertson EK, Kim FS, George SZ. Implica-

tions of early and guideline adherent physical therapy for low back pain on utilization and costs.

BMC Health Services Research. 2015 Jun;15(1):150.

4. Fritz JM, Childs JD, Wainner RS, Flynn TW. Primary care referral of patients with low back pain

to physical therapy: impact on future health care utilization and costs. Spine. 2012 Dec 1;37


5. Nordeman L, Nilsson B, Möller M, Gunnarsson R. Early access to physical therapy treatment for

subacute low back pain in primary health care: a prospective randomized clinical trial. The Clini-

cal Journal of Pain. 2006 Jul 1;22(6):505-11.


6. Fritz JM, Lane E, McFadden M, Brennan G, Magel JS, Thackeray A, Minick K, Meier W, Greene

T. Physical Therapy Referral From Primary Care for Acute Back Pain With Sciatica: A Random-

ized Controlled Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2020 Oct 6.

7. Chou R, Qaseem A, Snow V, Casey D, Cross Jr JT, Shekelle P, Owens DK. Diagnosis and treat-

ment of low back pain: a joint clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians

and the American Pain Society. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2007 Oct 2;147(7):478-91.

8. Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, McLean RM, Forciea MA. Noninvasive treatments for acute, subacute, and

chronic low back pain: a clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians. An-

nals of Internal Medicine. 2017 Apr 4;166(7):514-30.

9. O'Connell NE, Cook CE, Wand BM, Ward SP. Clinical guidelines for low back pain: a critical

review of consensus and inconsistencies across three major guidelines. Best practice & research

Clinical Rheumatology. 2016 Dec 1;30(6):968-80.


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