Background: Sciatica has a substantial impact on patients and society. Current care is 'stepped', comprising an initial period of simple measures of advice and analgesia, for most patients, commonly followed by physiotherapy, and then by more intensive interventions if symptoms fail to resolve. No study has yet tested a model of stratified care in which patients are subgrouped and matched to different care pathways based on their prognosis and clinical characteristics.
Objectives: The objectives were to investigate the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of a stratified care model compared with usual, non-stratified care.
Design: This was a two-parallel group, multicentre, pragmatic, 1 : 1 randomised controlled trial.
Setting: Participants were recruited from primary care (42 general practices) in North Staffordshire, North Shropshire/Wales and Cheshire in the UK.
Participants: Eligible patients were aged ≥ 18 years, had suspected sciatica, had access to a mobile phone/landline, were not pregnant, were not receiving treatment for the same problem and had not had previous spinal surgery.
Interventions: In stratified care, a combination of prognostic and clinical criteria associated with referral to spinal specialist services was used to allocate patients to one of three groups for matched care pathways. Group 1 received advice and up to two sessions of physiotherapy, group 2 received up to six sessions of physiotherapy, and group 3 was fast-tracked to magnetic resonance imaging and spinal specialist opinion. Usual care was based on the stepped-care approach without the use of any stratification tools/algorithms. Patients were randomised using a remote web-based randomisation service.
Main outcome measures: The primary outcome was time to first resolution of sciatica symptoms (six point ordinal scale, collected via text messages). Secondary outcomes (at 4 and 12 months) included pain, function, psychological health, days lost from work, work productivity, satisfaction with care and health-care use. A cost-utility analysis was undertaken over 12 months. A qualitative study explored patients' and clinicians' views of the fast-track care pathway to a spinal specialist.
Results: A total of 476 patients were randomised (238 in each arm). For the primary outcome, the overall response rate was 89.3% (88.3% and 90.3% in the stratified and usual care arms, respectively). Relief from symptoms was slightly faster (2 weeks median difference) in the stratified care arm, but this difference was not statistically significant (hazard ratio 1.14, 95% confidence interval 0.89 to 1.46; p = 0.288). On average, participants in both arms reported good improvement from baseline, on most outcomes, over time. Following the assessment at the research clinic, most participants in the usual care arm were referred to physiotherapy.
Conclusions: The stratified care model tested in this trial was not more clinically effective than usual care, and was not likely to be a cost-effective option. The fast-track pathway was felt to be acceptable to both patients and clinicians; however, clinicians expressed reluctance to consider invasive procedures if symptoms were of short duration.
Limitations: Participants in the usual care arm, on average, reported good outcomes, making it challenging to demonstrate superiority of stratified care. The performance of the algorithm used to allocate patients to treatment pathways may have influenced results.
Future work: Other approaches to stratified care may provide superior outcomes for sciatica.
Trial registration: Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN75449581.
Funding: This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment programme and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 24, No. 49. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information.
Keywords: CARE PATHWAYS; COST-EFFECTIVENESS ANALYSIS; HUMANS; PRIMARY CARE; RANDOMISED CONTROLLED TRIAL; SCIATICA; STRATIFIED CARE.
Sciatica is pain that spreads into the leg because of a trapped nerve in the lower back. It can be a very painful condition that affects everyday life and ability to work. People with sciatica usually see their general practitioner first; if they do not get better over time, they may be referred to a physiotherapist or, eventually, to a spinal specialist. It is difficult to know which sciatica patient will do well without much treatment and who might need to see a physiotherapist or spinal specialist sooner. Stratified care is an approach aiming to help decide, early on, which patients need to see which health professionals. It has previously been shown to be helpful for patients with lower-back pain. In a trial of 476 patients with sciatica a stratified care model was tested to see if it led to faster improvements in sciatica-related leg pain, when compared with usual care. Adults seeing their general practitioner with sciatica were invited to attend a research clinic. Those willing to take part were randomly assigned to stratified care or usual care. Patients in the stratified care arm were referred either to physiotherapy for a short or a longer course of treatment, or to undergo magnetic resonance imaging and see a spinal specialist with the magnetic resonance imaging results within 4 weeks. Pain, function and quality-of-life data were collected over 12 months using text messages and questionnaires. Although patients in the stratified care arm improved slightly more quickly (2 weeks, on average), we did not find convincing evidence that stratified care led to better results than usual care. On average, most patients in both trial arms improved in a similar way over 12 months. The stratified care model tested in this trial did not lead to faster recovery for patients with sciatica than usual care.