Would loss to follow-up bias the outcome evaluation of patients operated for degenerative disorders of the lumbar spine?

Acta Orthop. 2011 Feb;82(1):56-63. doi: 10.3109/17453674.2010.548024. Epub 2010 Dec 29.


Background and purpose: Loss to follow-up may bias the outcome assessments of clinical registries. In this study, we wanted to determine whether outcomes were different in responding and non-responding patients who were included in a clinical spine surgery registry, at two years of follow-up. In addition, we wanted to identify risk factors for failure to respond.

Methods: 633 patients who were operated for degenerative disorders of the lumbar spine were followed for 2 years using a local clinical spine registry. Those who did not attend the clinic and those who did not answer a postal questionnaire-for whom 2 years of outcome data were missing-and who would be lost to follow-up according to the standard procedures of the registry protocols, were defined as non-respondents. They were traced and interviewed by telephone. Outcome measures were: improvement in health-related quality of life (EQ-5D), leg pain, and back pain; and also general state of health, employment status, and perceived benefits of the operation.

Results: We found no statistically significant differences in outcome between respondents (78% of the patients) and non-respondents (22%). Receipt of postal questionnaires (not being summoned for a follow-up visit) was the strongest risk factor for failure to respond. Forgetfulness appeared to be an important cause. Older patients and those who had complications were more likely to respond.

Interpretation: A loss to follow-up of 22% would not bias conclusions about overall treatment effects and, importantly, there were no indications of worse outcomes in non-respondents.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Bias
  • Cohort Studies
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Intervertebral Disc Displacement / surgery*
  • Lost to Follow-Up*
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / surgery*
  • Middle Aged
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Registries
  • Risk Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Spinal Stenosis / surgery*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult