Physical therapists referring patients to physicians: a review of case reports and series

J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2012 May;42(5):446-54. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2012.3890. Epub 2012 Jan 25.


Study design: Descriptive.

Background: An important role for physical therapists in the healthcare delivery system is to recognize when patient referral to a physician or other healthcare provider is indicated. Few studies exist describing physical therapists' evaluative and diagnostic processes leading to patient referral to a physician.

Objective: To summarize published patient case reports that described physical therapist/patient episodes of care that resulted in the referral of the patient to a physician and a subsequent diagnosis of medical disease.

Methods: A literature search identified 78 case reports describing physical therapist referral of patients to physicians with subsequent diagnosis of a medical condition. Two evaluators reviewed the cases and summarized (1) how and when patients accessed physical therapy services, (2) timing of patient referral to a physician, (3) resultant medical diagnoses, (4) physical therapists' role in referral of patients for diagnostic testing, and (5) relevant patient symptom description, health history, review of systems, and physical examination findings.

Results: Fifty-eight (74.4%) of 78 patients had been referred to a physical therapist by their physician, while the remaining 20 patients accessed physical therapy services via direct access. The patients' primary presenting symptoms included pain (n = 60), weakness (n = 4), tingling/numbness (n = 2), or a combination (n = 12). Patient referrals to a physician occurred at the initial physical therapy session in 58 (74.4%) of 78 cases. A majority of patient referrals to a physician (n = 65) were related to primary presenting symptoms, including manifestations inconsistent with physician diagnosis, recent worsening without cause, unusual accompanying symptoms such as fatigue and/or weakness, and inadequate response to treatment. Resultant diagnoses included neuromusculoskeletal disorders (n = 53; fractures and tumors most common), visceral disorders (n = 14; cardiovascular involvement most common), and medication-related disorders (n = 3).

Conclusions: This review of published patient case reports provides numerous examples of physical therapists using effective multifactorial screening strategies for referred and direct-access patients, leading to timely patient referrals to physicians. The therapist-initiated patient referral to a physician led to subsequent diagnosis of a wide range of conditions and pathological processes.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Delivery of Health Care
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / diagnosis
  • Physical Therapists*
  • Physicians*
  • Referral and Consultation*
  • Workforce
  • Young Adult