Only about 10% to 15% of patients with low back pain who are referred to a spine surgeon actually require a surgical procedure. And because low back pain is such a common presenting complaint, many such patients often wait a long time for a surgery consult. In the December 19, 2018 issue of JBJS, Coyle et al. demonstrate that a simple, 3-item patient-administered questionnaire can identify those better suited for nonoperative management—and thus increase the likelihood that surgical candidates are seen by spine surgeons in an acceptable time frame.
All 227 of the Canadian patients enrolled in this randomized controlled trial received the questionnaire, which elicited information to distinguish between patients with leg-dominant radicular pain and those with back-dominant pain. Evidence-based guidelines recommend nonoperative management for most back-dominant pain, while patients with leg-dominant pain are more likely to need surgery. Researchers randomized 116 patients into an intervention group; these patients were triaged by a spine surgeon and then had their triage status upgraded if responses to the questionnaire indicated leg-dominant symptoms. The 111 patients in the control group were triaged only by a spine surgeon.
After triage, 33 of the 227 patients (15%) were recommended for a surgical procedure—16 from the intervention group and 17 from the control group. Of the 16 surgical candidates identified from the intervention group, 9 (56%) were re-prioritized on the basis of questionnaire results.
The median wait time for a consultation among the 16 surgical candidates in the intervention group was 2.5 months, compared with 4.5 months for the 17 surgical candidates in the control group. A significantly greater percentage of patients in the intervention group than in the control group were seen for a consult with a spine surgeon within the “acceptable” time frame of 3 months. Another benefit of the questionnaire approach evaluated in this study is that it helps identify nonsurgical candidates early, so they can be directed toward more appropriate treatment (such as physical therapy) rather than delaying treatment while waiting for a consult with a spine surgeon.
Although this study was conducted in the setting of the “nationalized” Canadian health care system, wait times to see orthopaedic surgeons and neurosurgeons are also long for many patients in many regions of the US. This questionnaire enhancement to triage could therefore be viable throughout North America, and perhaps beyond.