A systematic review and evidence synthesis of non-medical triage, self-referral and direct access services for patients with musculoskeletal pain

PLoS One. 2020 Jul 6;15(7):e0235364. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0235364. eCollection 2020.


Introduction: The demand for musculoskeletal (MSK) care is rising, and is a growing challenge for general practice. Direct access to physiotherapy and other healthcare services may offer appropriate care for MSK pain patients but there is uncertainty regarding the effectiveness or efficiency of this approach in practice. This study aimed to review the evidence regarding characteristics, outcomes, barriers and facilitators of MSK triage and direct access services.

Methods: A comprehensive search of eight databases (including MEDLINE, EMBASE, and Cochrane library) up to February 2018 was conducted to identify studies (trials, cohorts and qualitative evidence) on direct access services for MSK in primary care settings. Using predefined inclusion and exclusion criteria, titles, abstracts, and subsequent full texts were independently screened by reviewers. Methodological quality of eligible studies was assessed using the mixed methods appraisal tool, and extracted data regarding study characteristics and results were independently reviewed. A narrative synthesis and grading of evidence was undertaken. Approaches to MSK triage and direct access were profiled along with their respective outcomes of care relating to patient-oriented and socioeconomic outcomes. Barriers and facilitators of each model of direct access services were also highlighted.

Results: 9010 unique citations were screened, of which 26 studies were eligible. Three approaches (open access, combination and service pathway models) to MSK triage and direct access shared similar goals but were heterogeneous in application. MSK patients using direct access showed largely similar characteristics (age, sex and duration of symptoms) compared to GP-led care, although they were often younger, slightly more educated and with better socio-economic status than patients seen through GP-led care. Although many studies showed limitations in design or methods, outcomes of care (patient oriented outcomes of pain, and disability) did not show large differences between direct access and GP-led care. In most studies direct access patients were reported to have lower healthcare utilisation (fewer physiotherapy or GP consultations, analgesics or muscle relaxants prescriptions, or imaging procedures) and less time off work compared to GP-led care.

Discussion: This study provides insight into the current state of evidence regarding MSK triage and direct access services and highlights potential implications for future research, healthcare services planning, resource utilisation and organising care for MSK patients in primary care. There is consistent, although limited, evidence to suggest that MSK triage and direct access services lead to comparable clinical outcomes with lower healthcare consumption, and can help to manage GP workload. However, due to the paucity of strong empirical data from methodologically robust studies, a scale up and widespread roll out of direct access services cannot as yet be assumed to result in long term health and socio-economic gains. PROSPERO-ID: CRD42018085978.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Musculoskeletal Pain / diagnosis
  • Musculoskeletal Pain / therapy*
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Physical Therapy Specialty / statistics & numerical data*
  • Primary Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Referral and Consultation / statistics & numerical data*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Triage / methods*
  • Triage / statistics & numerical data