Study design: Quantitative and qualitative cross-sectional interview study.
Objectives: To investigate how patients who are referred for plain radiography because of low back pain perceive the importance and usefulness of the examination.
Summary of background data: Up to 50% of plain radiography examinations for low back pain may be unnecessary based on clinical criteria. However, many patients have great confidence in these examinations. A further exploration of the patients' views may indicate how their needs can be met without unnecessary use of radiography.
Methods: Ninety-nine patients (65 women, 34 men) 14-91 years of age who were referred from Norwegian general practitioners for plain radiography of the lumbosacral spine were asked to rate the examination as slightly/fairly or very important (93 responded). Chi-squared tests were used to evaluate differences in rating according to age, gender, clinical history, and clinical appropriateness of the examination, as determined by comparing information in the referral form with Norwegian (NR) and British (BR) recommendations for use of radiography. Each of the 99 patients also underwent a semistructured interview that was based on questions about importance, usefulness, and reasons for the radiography referral. Answers were categorized and described using a qualitative method (template analysis).
Results: Seventy-two percent (68 of 93) of patients rated radiography as very important. The proportion was higher for men than women (85% vs. 65%, P = 0.04), higher for those with worsening than those with improving/unchanged symptoms (86% vs. 65%, P = 0.03), and higher for inappropriately than appropriately referred patients (NR: 76% vs. 61%, P = 0.17; BR: 81% vs. 56%, P = 0.01). The qualitative analysis showed that the patients related their views on the importance and usefulness of receiving radiography to seven different issues: symptoms and clinical history, information and advice (especially from health care providers), need for emotional support from the physician, need for certainty and reassurance, need for symptom explanation and diagnosis, reliability of radiography compared with clinical evaluation, and expected practical consequences of the radiologic examination.
Conclusions: The finding that inappropriately referred patients tended to rate their radiography referral as more important than appropriately referred patients indicates that the patient's view may be a substantial barrier to appropriate use of radiography. The study identified seven issues underlying the patients' views on importance and usefulness of receiving radiography. Strategies to prevent unnecessary use of plain radiography for low back pain that address these issues are suggested.