Wait and see…when do we “escalate” care for low back pain?

Prompted by reading a paper by Linton, Nicholas and Shaw (in press), today’s post is about various service delivery models for low back pain and not the content of back pain treatment.

Service delivery in New Zealand is assumed to be based on getting most bang for the buck: we have a mainly socialised healthcare system, along with a unique “no fault, 24 hour” insurance model for accidents whether at work or elsewhere, which means market forces existing in other countries are less dominant. There are, however, many other influences on what gets delivered and to whom.

Back to most bang for buck. With a limited healthcare budget, and seriously when is there ever NOT a limited budget in health, it would make sense to a thinking woman for healthcare to focus on high value treatments. Treatments that have large impact and are low cost. In low back pain, the techno-fix has limited application. Things like costly surgical approaches (synthetic disc replacements, fusions to stop vertebral movement) should be reserved for only those with clear indications for the procedure, and given on the basis of clinical need rather than in response to a distressed person. The outcomes just are not all that great (see Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder (2017) for a good review of nonspecific low back pain).

High value and low cost treatments are typically delivered by low status clinicians. Those “nonmedical” people like occupational therapists, physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors and the like. Maybe it’s for this reason that these treatments are relatively poorly funded. We lack lobby power.

Back to service delivery models. Currently in Christchurch, where I live, there is a health pathway (in other words, a service delivery model) developed in collaboration with GP’s, physiotherapists, osteopaths and secondary care. The model adopted applies to ALL episodes of low back pain, and uses the STarTBack tool to triage those who may need more intensive treatment under a biopsychosocial model (mainly because of the additional risk psychosocial factors pose for these people), and to continue with treatment as usual for those with lower risk as measured by this tool.

After about six weeks, if the person hasn’t responded to treatment, clinicians are meant to refer the person to a team for review and to see whether additional treatments or another pathway might be appropriate. Unfortunately, there is no indication of the makeup of that team, and no obligation for the clinician to send the person to it. I’m not sure about clinical audit of this pathway, and again this isn’t clear.

One of the problems (amongst many) with this approach is that six weeks without responding to treatment and the time needed after this to review the file, then be referred elsewhere is a very long time to someone experiencing back pain. A very long time. By six weeks it wouldn’t be surprising if the person’s sick leave is gone. If they’re receiving ACC the processes will have kicked in, but for the person who has typical grumpy back symptoms without an “accident” initiating it, there may be nothing.

Linton, Nicholas and Shaw point out that all of the triaging approaches for low back pain hold assumptions. The three are stepped care (begin with low intensity, once that hasn’t helped progress to more intensive and so on); stratified (triage those with high risk, and treat them accordingly, while low risk get lower intensity treatment); and matched care (treatments are administered according to an algorithm based on grouping people with similar characteristics).

Stepped care

The assumptions of stepped care include that people with basic acute low back pain will recover relatively easily, while those who need more help will be fine waiting for that additional level of care. There’s an assumption that factors leading to chronic disability occur in stages – the longer a person waits the more risk factors will appear – but this isn’t actually the case. Many people present with risk factors from the very beginning (and they can be identified), while waiting only allows those problems to be cemented in place. At the same time, we know acute low back pain is quite a rare thing: most people will have their first bout of back pain in adolescence, and will have learned good and not so good habits and attitudes from that experience. Another assumption is that duration of back pain doesn’t harm, but we know delayed attention to risk factors for chronicity is harmful. Stepped care can be useful because it’s efficient, easy to implement and overtreatment is less likely – but what about the person who appears with all the risk factors evident from the beginning? These people may not get adequate or appropriate treatment from the outset.

Stratified care

In stratified care, treatment is provided according to the category of risk the person presents with, maybe circumventing some of the problems from stepped care. Stratified care assumes we’re able to identify risk factors, and that they are stable from the outset rather than changing over time. It also assumes that risk factors exert a cumulative effect with more risk factors meaning greater risk. BUT while screening can identify some risks, and those at low risk get more adequate treatment while higher intensity treatment is given to those with more risk, this approach doesn’t identify underlying mechanisms, and more comprehensive treatments addressing specific issues may not be provided. This approach may not even consider the impact of workplace factors, family dynamics, social and recreational issues. It’s also pretty challenging to implement as I think the Christchurch example demonstrates.

Matched care

In matched care risk factors are identified and treatments are matched to the person’s needs, and like stratified care it assumes that risk factors can be identified, are stable, and that they can form a “profile” or subtype. This approach also assumes that tailoring interventions to individual risk will be more efficient than alternatives. There’s some support that screening can identify some risks, and that profiles can be constructed – but this continues to be a work under progress. Some of the limitations are the emerging nature of research into grouping people according to multiple indicators is complex, particularly at the beginning of treatment, and treatments matching profiles are therefore also under development. It’s a very complex approach to implement so I can understand why local health authorities may be reluctant to embark on this strategy. It’s also back to the problem of assuming that people’s risk profiles are stable over time.

What do we do?

One part of me thinks, well it doesn’t matter really because as a lowly nonmedical person I have very little influence over health systems, the perverse incentives that drive them, and absolutely no political clout whatsoever. BUT I know that the “wait and see” six weeks before reviewing progress is not helping. And the current considerations fail to integrate those important workplace, family, socio-economic and contextual factors that are hard to quantify.

We already know that low back pain guidelines are routinely ignored by most clinicians in favour of “what I do” and “it’s worked before” and “the guidelines are biased so I won’t follow them”. There’s also the fear that by identifying psychosocial risk factors we’re condemning people to the “back pain is really in your head” meme (it’s even something I’ve been accused of. FWIW I think low back pain is far more complex and is multifactorial. Psychosocial factors are certainly more useful at predicting disability than biomechanical or diagnostic ones, but this doesn’t mean the problem is purely psychological. <steps off soapbox>). Furthermore, it’s clear that not only do physiotherapists feel poorly-prepared to identify and work with psychosocial factors (Singla, Jones, Edwards & Kumar, 2015; Zangoni & Thomson, 2017), so also do medical practitioners although for different reasons (Coudeyre, Rannou, Tubach, Baron, Coriat, Brin et al, 2006). It’s difficult to open Pandora’s box when you only have 10 minutes with a patient.

As Linton, Nicholas and Shaw (in press) point out, training is needed before clinicians can feel both confident and efficient at screening and then managing low back pain via an integrated multidimensional model. “Role” delineation (who can contribute to the various aspects of treatment?) and the paucity of funding for allied health within primary care, especially in New Zealand makes this approach an aspiration. 

Naturally I’d like to see a range of different health professionals involved in developing health pathways. Not just professionals, but people well-versed in understanding the research literature and those with effective knowledge translation skills. I’d love to see high value and low cost treatments provided rather than techno-fix approaches, especially when the high value treatments are significantly safer and develop personal self efficacy and locus of control. Wouldn’t that be a thing to see?

  • Coudeyre, E., Rannou, F., Tubach, F., Baron, G., Coriat, F., Brin, S., … & Poiraudeau, S. (2006). General practitioners’ fear-avoidance beliefs influence their management of patients with low back pain. Pain, 124(3), 330-337.
  • Linton, S. J., Nicholas, M., & Shaw, W. Why wait to address high-risk cases of acute low back pain? A comparison of stepped, stratified, and matched care. Pain. in press
  • Maher, C., Underwood, M., & Buchbinder, R. (2017). Non-specific low back pain. The Lancet, 389(10070), 736-747.
  • Singla, M., Jones, M., Edwards, I., & Kumar, S. (2015). Physiotherapists’ assessment of patients’ psychosocial status: are we standing on thin ice? A qualitative descriptive study. Manual Therapy, 20(2), 328-334.
  • Zangoni, G., & Thomson, O. P. (2017). ‘I need to do another course’-Italian physiotherapists’ knowledge and beliefs when assessing psychosocial factors in patients presenting with chronic low back pain. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 27, 71-77.


  1. Bronnie, thank you for your comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the available options for care of those with low back pain.

    I wonder if you would like to comment on current New Zealand societal expectations for those who experience persistent low back (and other) pain?

    Do you think that such expectations, which could well be deeply embedded in your society, might be playing an important role in colouring medico-political approaches to the problem?

    1. Of course – communities reflect communal models. Kiwi’s, like Australians, have often been accused of a “she’ll be right” attitude, and also have great (possibly unfounded) belief in the medical model. We’re not alone in this! BUT those who are policy makers, medical practitioners with political clout, and politicians with advisors can and should, I think, review the research literature. I am heartened that the Labour Government in NZ is drawing far less on ideology and far more on research when developing policy. Ideology has little to do with what is and isn’t effective in healthcare yet seems to ride roughshod over research-based evidence.

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