Background context: A patient's self-reported history has, in general, assumed to be accurate. Clinical management of individuals with persistent axial pain after a motor vehicle accident (MVA) and measures to prevent future MVA, spinal cord injury, and traffic deaths often depend on a presumed accurate report of preexisting axial pain, drug, alcohol, and psychological problems to initiate intervention. In addition, research efforts to determine the effects of MVA on subsequent health are often predicated on a presumed accurate history from the patient of past medical and psychosocial problems. Despite so many clinical, public health, and research efforts being dependent on an accurate assessment of pre-injury health, the validity of the self-reported history after MVA has not been systematically investigated.
Purpose: To determine the validity of self-reported history in subjects with axial neck or back pain attributed to a recent MVA.
Study design: A prospective, multiclinic validation study examining the critical elements of a patient's self-reported history after an MVA judged against an audit of his or her medical records.
Patient sample: A cohort of consecutive patients with persistent axial pain after an MVA was prospectively identified from five spine-specialist's outpatient clinics. Of 702 patients, 335 subjects were randomly selected for auditing of their medical records.
Outcome measures: Self-reported demographic and clinical features were recorded by standardized questionnaires and clinical interviews. Audits compared these responses to an extensive medical record search.
Methods: The self-reported prevalence of preexisting axial pain, at-risk comorbidities (psychological distress, alcohol, and drug abuse), and control conditions (hypertension and diabetes) was recorded. The medical records of a random sample of 50% of the enrolled cohort underwent auditing of their medical records in a wide search of network paper and electronic and archived records, and compared with the self-reported history of pre-accident health.
Results: Overall, approximately 50% of the subjects were found to have previous axial pain problems at audit when none was reported to the spine-specialist after an MVA. Similarly, approximately 75% of the subjects were found to have one or more preexisting comorbid conditions at audit that were not reported during the evaluation after the MVA (alcohol abuse, illicit drug use, and psychological diagnosis). For those who perceived that the accident was the fault of another, as opposed to their own or no one's fault, the documented previous back and neck pain troubles in the medical records was more than twice the self-reported rate of these problems (p<.01). The rate of previously documented psychological problems was more than seven times that of the self-reported rate (p = 0.001). In those subjects who perceived that the accident was their own or no one's fault, a lesser degree of under-reporting of axial pain and comorbid conditions was found.
Conclusion: The validity of the patient's self-reported history when presenting with persistent axial pain after an MVA appears poor in this large multiclinic random sample.The self-reported rates of alcohol abuse, illicit drug use, and psychological diagnosis, as well as prior axial pain were significantly lower than that seen in the medical records, especially in thosewho perceive that the MVA was another's fault. The failure to recognize this under-reporting may seriously compromise clinical care, public health efforts at injury prevention, and research protocols dependent on accurate pre-accident morbidity assessments.