An evaluation of MRI lumbar spine scans within a community-based diagnostic setting

Musculoskeletal Care. 2021 Sep;19(3):384-395. doi: 10.1002/msc.1529. Epub 2020 Dec 5.


Background: With an ongoing move towards more management of patients within the community setting, demand for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is increasing and commonly used in lower back conditions. There is well recorded overuse of MRI in this scenario which goes against evidence-based practice and adds to rising healthcare costs.

Methods: The study was a retrospective review of lumbar spine MRI scans performed within a community-based setting over an 18-month period. The review took a randomised purposive sample of patients (n = 450); looking at adherence to, and relevance of, guidelines in managing lower back conditions. Data extracted provided information on demographics and prevalence of clinical presentation and report observations.

Results: There is variation in practice and utlisation of MRI with this patient group which warrants further exploration. Results support inappropriate use, lacking adherence to guidelines and pathways, leading to unnecessary imaging. 46% of referrals were considered clinically justified with 38% of report findings considered abnormal and of clinical relevance. Chi-square and binomial logistic regression were used to assess the significance and relationship of any factors on referral justification and report outcome. No difference was found between type of referrer, with patient age and leg symptoms being significant factors.

Conclusion: The study highlights the opportunity to integrate better referral criteria to improve referral quality, its suitability and the relevance of final reports. In the current climate this would help manage appropriate use of imaging resources during the post COVID-19 pandemic recovery phase, as well as support recommendations regarding diagnostic reform and a move towards more community-based diagnostics.

Keywords: guidance; low back pain; magnetic resonance imaging; primary health care.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19
  • England / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Guideline Adherence
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • SARS-CoV-2