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Imaging use for low back pain by Ontario primary care clinicians: protocol for a mixed methods study – the Back ON study

French SD, Green ME, Bhatia RS, Peng Y, Hayden JA, Hartvigsen J, Ivers NM, Grimshaw JM, Booth CM, Ruhland L, Norman KE. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2019; 20(1):50. Epub 2019 Feb 2. DOI: 10.1186/s12891-019-2427-1.


Background — At any one time, one in every five Canadians has low back pain (LBP), and LBP is one of the most common health problems in primary care. Guidelines recommend that imaging not be routinely performed in patients presenting with LBP without signs or symptoms indicating a potential pathological cause. Yet imaging rates remain high for many patients who present without such indications. Inappropriate imaging can lead to inappropriate treatments, results in worse health outcomes and causes harm from unnecessary radiation. There is a need to understand the extent of, and factors contributing to, inappropriate imaging for LBP, and to develop effective strategies that target modifiable barriers and facilitators. The primary study objectives are to determine: 1) The rate of, and factors associated with, inappropriate lumbar spine imaging (x-ray, CT scan and MRI) for people with non-specific LBP presenting to primary care clinicians in Ontario; 2) The barriers and facilitators to reduce inappropriate imaging for LBP in primary care settings.

Methods — The project will comprise an inception cohort study and a concurrent qualitative study. For the cohort study, we will recruit 175 primary care clinicians (50 each from physiotherapy and chiropractic; 75 from family medicine), and 3750 patients with a new episode of LBP who present to these clinicians. Clinicians will collect data in the clinic, and each participant will be tracked for 12 months using Ontario health administrative and self-reported data to measure diagnostic imaging use and other health outcomes. We will assess characteristics of the clinicians, patients and encounters to identify variables associated with inappropriate imaging. In the qualitative study we will conduct in-depth interviews with primary care clinicians and patients.

Discussion — This will be the first Canadian study to accurately document the extent of the overuse of imaging for LBP, and the first worldwide to include data from the main healthcare professions offering primary care for people with LBP. This study will provide robust information about rates of inappropriate imaging for LBP, along with factors associated with, and an understanding of, potential reasons for inappropriate imaging.

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