Study design: Nonexperimental, retrospective, descriptive design.
Objectives: This study was designed to ascertain whether direct access to physical therapy placed military health care beneficiaries at risk for adverse events related to their management.
Background: Military health care beneficiaries have the option at most US military hospitals and clinics to first enter the health care system through physical therapy by direct access, without referral from another privileged health care provider. This level of autonomous practice incurs broad responsibilities and raises concern regarding the delivery of safe, competent, and appropriate patient care administered by physical therapists (PTs) when patients are not first examined and then referred by a physician or other privileged health care provider. While military PTs practice autonomously in a variety of health care settings, they do not work independently within any facility. Military PTs and physicians rely on one another for sharing and collaboration of information regarding patient care and clinical research as warranted. Additionally, military PTs are indirectly supervised by physicians.
Methods and measures: To reduce provider bias, a retrospective analysis was performed at 25 military health care sites (6 Army, 11 Navy, and 8 Air Force) on patients seen in physical therapy from October 1999 through January 2003. During this 40-month period, 95 PTs (88 military and 7 civilian) were credentialed to provide care throughout the various medical sites. Descriptive statistics were analyzed for total workload, number of new patients seen with and without referral, documented patient adverse events reported to each facility's Risk Management Office, and any disciplinary or legal action against a physical therapist.
Results: During the 40-month observation period, 472 013 patient visits were recorded. Of these, 112 653 (23.9%) were new patients, with 50 799 (45.1%) of the new patients seen through direct access without physician referral. Throughout the 40-month data collection period, there were no reported adverse events resulting from the PTs' diagnoses or management, regardless of how patients accessed physical therapy services. Additionally, none of the PTs had their credentials or state licenses modified or revoked for disciplinary action. There also had been no litigation cases filed against the US Government involving PTs during the same period.
Conclusions: The findings from this preliminary study clearly demonstrate that patients seen in military health care facilities are at minimal risk for gross negligent care when evaluated and managed by PTs, with or without physician referral. The significance of these findings with respect to direct access is important for not only our beneficiaries but also our profession and the facilities in which we practice.