I’m a shopper. I love to shop with a pocket full of money and buy lovely new things! I don’t even need to spend the money – just knowing I have it there to spend is enough to send me into raptures. Now one thing I have never heard in healthcare is that there’s plenty of money. Not once. I can’t recall a time when I’ve heard “Oh let’s just go and spend”. Instead I hear a lot about “Lean thinking”, and “efficiencies”, and “cost saving” – and “No, we can’t do that because it needs an up-front investment and the payback won’t be for years”.
What if I could show where there are hundreds of thousands of dollars going to waste that are also contributing to poor health outcomes and increased risk of complication?
Well, as it happens, I have just such a case. It’s when a person goes to the Emergency Department during a bout of back pain.
A group of researchers (Schlemmer, Mitchiner, Brown & Wasilevich, in press) examined the records of people attending ED for low back pain over the course of one year, from 2011 – 2012. They looked at the indications for receiving imaging for the preceding 12 months. Over 14,838 events were recorded – and of this group, 51% had no indications for imaging. This group attended ED less often, had fewer hospital stays, had lower rates of healthcare visits and had fewer appointments with specialists. BUT among this group 30% had imaging, 26% had advanced imaging (eg CT or MRI).
Overall, nearly 30% of people presenting to ED with low back pain are likely to have an Xray, and 10% will go on to have advanced imaging.
What this means is that there are a group of people who really don’t need to have imaging, according to our best evidence, but end up having it. We know that most people with back pain are not going to benefit from having X-ray, CT or MRI because these images either don’t show anything useful (no image shows pain) or show something irrelevant that might look interesting but is actually unrelated to back pain. We know this, and there have been numerous treatment guidelines and algorithms and education indicating not to give imaging for low back pain without neurological changes.
Yet this paper shows very clearly that this practice is still going on.
The authors point out why changing practice is important: unnecessary imaging increases exposure to radiation, increases the risk of getting surgery (that’s not likely to change the low back pain outcome), and costs a lot – in this case, the authors suggest $600,000 could be saved in the two years in which this study was conducted. That’s a lot of money – it might even pay for a clinician or two!
I’m interested in why this happens.
ED is a busy place. It’s set up for people to be seen urgently, where the focus is on saving lives, where every minute counts. It’s not the place for people with chronic problems, complex problems (particularly complex psychosocial problems), and it’s not the place for taking time to consider the long term implications of any action. People working in ED care enormously about their work, know they’re making a difference – but find it very difficult to deal with the complex chronic health problems of those with chronic pain. Particularly those with chronic pain and associated mental health problems.
It’s not the place to see people with chronic pain. And yet, within the top 100 “frequent attenders” to ED, most will have a mental health problem, and most will have chronic pain.
To me this suggests there are a lot of people in the community who have unmanaged chronic pain. Or poorly managed chronic pain.
It’s not that people shouldn’t get treatment – but it’s the “better, sooner, more convenient” and the “right person, right treatment, right time” that needs to be addressed.
Let’s say we employed four specialist clinicians to work in ED to help people with chronic pain. Four clinicians at roughly $80,000. That’s $320,000.
If every person with chronic pain flare-up was seen by a clinician, connected with appropriate chronic pain services, and a management plan developed to help that person stay at home instead of venturing into ED, I volunteer that there’d be a saving. Not only a financial saving, but an emotional one – and not just for the person attending ED! But for the staff working there, the ambulance staff assisting, the family members of the person, and his or her primary care team.
Why doesn’t this happen? Well I think it’s mainly because chronic pain isn’t often given as a primary diagnosis, and certainly isn’t recorded on ED admission forms. That makes it invisible. The costs of admissions for chronic pain are therefore hidden. Chronic pain doesn’t get much airtime, and it’s not sexy. Making a change to how ED manages people with chronic pain requires an upfront investment – and every other area in health is crying out for money, usually much more loudly than chronic pain! And there’s the issue of relative power – a medical solution to chronic pain doesn’t exist, it’s mainly managed by allied health. We’re not a vocal group, we have limited political clout, and we’re poorly represented within healthcare management. Chronic pain management also requires a team, and a team working in a way that is quite different from most teams because it’s interdisciplinary rather than multidisciplinary. Chronic pain management takes time. Results/outcomes are quite small.
But when we’re being exhorted to save money in health, I can’t see why changing practice around unnecessary imaging can’t be an effective first step.
Schlemmer, E., Mitchiner, J., Brown, M., & Wasilevich, E. (2014). Imaging during low back pain ED visits: a claims-based descriptive analysis The American Journal of Emergency Medicine DOI: 10.1016/j.ajem.2014.12.060