Using general practitioners with an extended role in spinal practice for the initial assessment of patients referred to spinal surgeons: preliminary experience and challenges

Prim Health Care Res Dev. 2023 Jan 26;24:e9. doi: 10.1017/S1463423622000494.


Aim: To describe experience using general practitioners (GPs), with an extended role (GPwER) in spinal medicine, to expedite assessment, triage, and management of patients referred from primary care for specialist spinal surgical opinion.

Background: Low back and neck pain are common conditions in primary care. Indiscriminate or inappropriate referral to a spinal surgeon contributes to long waiting times. Previous attempts at triaging patients who really require a surgical opinion have used practice nurses, physiotherapists, clinical algorithms, and interdisciplinary screening clinics.

Methods: Within the setting of an independent spinal care centre, we have used GPs specially trained in spinal practice to expedite the assessment and triage of new referrals between 2015 and 2021. We reviewed feedback from a Patient Satisfaction Questionnaire and the postgraduate backgrounds, training, practice with regard to triage of new referrals, and experiences of the GPs who were recruited.

Findings: Six GPwER had a mean of 26 years of postgraduate experience before appointment (range 10-44 years). The first four GPwER, appointed between 2015 and 2018, underwent an ad hoc in-house, interdisciplinary training programme and saw 2994 new patients between 2016 and 2020. After GPwER, assessment in only 18.9% (range 12.6 to 22.7%) of these patients was a spinal surgical opinion deemed necessary. Waiting times to see the spinal surgeon remained at 6-8 weeks despite a three-fold annual increase (from 340 to 1058) in new referrals. A Patient Satisfaction Questionnaire revealed high levels of satisfaction with the performances of the GPwER across seven dimensions. A dedicated training programme was designed in 2020, and the last two appointees underwent 20 h of clinical teaching prior to practice. Initial experience using GPwER, here termed 'Spinal Clinicians', suggests they are efficient at screening for patients needing spinal surgical referral. Establishing a recognised training programme, assessment, and certification for these practitioners are the next challenges.

Keywords: general practice; low back pain; neck pain; spinal surgery; triage.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • General Practitioners*
  • Humans
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Surgeons*