Background: Despite the availability of clinical guidelines for the management of low back pain (LBP), there continues to be wide variation in general practitioners' (GPs') referral rates for lumbar spine x-ray (LSX). This study aims to explain variation in GPs' referral rates for LSX from their accounts of the management of patients with low back pain.
Methods: Qualitative, semi-structured interviews with 29 GPs with high and low referral rates for LSX in North East England. Thematic analysis used constant comparative techniques.
Results: Common and divergent themes were identified among high- and low-users of LSX. Themes that were similar in both groups included an awareness of current guidelines for the use of LSX for patients with LBP and the pressure from patients and institutional factors to order a LSX. Differentiating themes for the high-user group included: a belief that LSX provides reassurance to patients that can outweigh risks, pessimism about the management options for LBP, and a belief that denying LSX would adversely affect doctor-patient relationships. Two specific differentiating themes are considered in more depth: GPs' awareness of their use of lumbar spine radiology relative to others, and the perceived risks associated with LSX radiation.
Conclusion: Several key factors differentiate the accounts of GPs who have high and low rates of referral for LSX, even though they are aware of clinical guideline recommendations. Intervention studies that aim to increase adherence to guideline recommendations on the use of LSX by changing the ordering behaviour of practitioners in primary care should focus on these factors.