Background: Patients with back pain receive quite different care from different types of health care practitioners. We performed a prospective observational study to determine whether the outcomes of and charges for care differ among primary care practitioners, chiropractors, and orthopedic surgeons.
Methods: Two hundred eight practitioners in North Carolina were randomly selected from six strata: urban primary care physicians (n = 39), rural primary care physicians (n = 48), urban chiropractors (n = 32), rural chiropractors (n = 32), orthopedic surgeons (n = 29), and primary care providers at a group-model health maintenance organization (HMO) (n = 28). The practitioners enrolled consecutive patients with acute low back pain. The patients were contacted by telephone periodically for up to 24 weeks to assess functional status, work status, use of health care services, and satisfaction with the care received.
Results: The status at six months was ascertained for 1555 of the 1633 patients enrolled in the study (95 percent). The times to functional recovery, return to work, and complete recovery from low back pain were similar among patients seen by all six groups of practitioners, but there were marked differences in the use of health care services. The mean total estimated outpatient charges were highest for the patients seen by orthopedic surgeons and chiropractors and were lowest for the patients seen by HMO and primary care providers. Satisfaction was greatest among the patients who went to the chiropractors.
Conclusions: Among patients with acute low back pain, the outcomes are similar whether they receive care from primary care practitioners, chiropractors, or orthopedic surgeons. Primary care practitioners provide the least expensive care for acute low back pain.