Dr. James Andrews, a widely known sports medicine orthopedist in Gulf Breeze, Fla., wanted to test his suspicion that M.R.I.’s, the scans given to almost every injured athlete or casual exerciser, might be a bit misleading. So he scanned the shoulders of 31 perfectly healthy professional baseball pitchers.
The Athlete’s Pain
Overuse of Scans
The pitchers were not injured and had no pain. But the M.R.I.’s found abnormal shoulder cartilage in 90 percent of them and abnormal rotator cuff tendons in 87 percent. “If you want an excuse to operate on a pitcher’s throwing shoulder, just get an M.R.I.,” Dr. Andrews says.
He and other eminent sports medicine specialists are taking a stand against what they see as the vast overuse of magnetic resonance imaging in their specialty.
M.R.I.’s can be invaluable in certain situations — finding serious problems like tumors or helping distinguish between competing diagnoses that fit a patient’s history and symptoms. They also can make money for doctors who own their own machines. And they can please sports medicine patients, who often expect a scan.
But scans are easily misinterpreted and can result in misdiagnoses leading to unnecessary or even harmful treatments.
For example, said Dr. Bruce Sangeorzan, professor and vice chairman of the department of orthopedics and sports medicine at the University of Washington, if a healthy, uninjured person goes out for a run, a scan afterward will show fluid in the knee bone. It is inconsequential. But in an injured person, fluid can be a sign of a bone that is stressed or even has a crack and is trying to heal.
“An M.R.I. is unlike any other imaging tool we use,” Dr. Sangeorzan said. “It is a very sensitive tool, but it is not very specific. That’s the problem.” And scans almost always find something abnormal, although most abnormalities are of no consequence.
“It is very rare for an M.R.I. to come back with the words ‘normal study,’ “ said Dr. Christopher DiGiovanni, a professor of orthopedics and a sports medicine specialist at Brown University. “I can’t tell you the last time I’ve seen it.”
In sports medicine, where injuries are typically torn muscles or tendons or narrow cracks in bones, specialists like Dr. Andrews and Dr. DiGiovanni say M.R.I.’s often are not needed — they usually can figure out what is wrong with just a careful medical history, a physical exam and, sometimes, a simple X-ray.
M.R.I.’s are not the only scans that are overused in medicine but, in sports medicine, where many injuries involve soft tissues like muscles and tendons, they rise to the fore.
In fact, one prominent orthopedist, Dr. Sigvard T. Hansen, Jr., a professor of orthopedics and sports medicine at the University of Washington, says he pretty much spurns such scans altogether because they so rarely provide useful information about the patients he sees — those with injuries to the foot and ankle.
“I see 300 or 400 new patients a year,” Dr. Hansen says. “Out of them, there might be one that has something confusing and might need a scan.”
The price, which medical facilities are reluctant to reveal, depends on where the scan is done and what is being scanned. One academic medical center charges $1,721 for an M.R.I. of the knee to look for a torn ligament. The doctor who interprets the scan gets $244. Doctors who own their own M.R.I. machines — and many do — can pocket both fees. Insurers pay less than the charges — an average of $150 to the doctor and $960 to the facility.
Steve Ganobcik is something of a poster child for what can go wrong with the scans. A salesman who turns 44 on Saturday, Mr. Ganobcik twisted his knee skiing in Colorado in February. He continued skiing anyway and skied again the next two days as well, not wanting to cut his vacation short.
When he got home to Cleveland, his knee still bothered him, so he saw a sports medicine orthopedist. The doctor immediately ordered an M.R.I. and said it showed a torn anterior cruciate ligament, or A.C.L. It is one of the most common — and most devastating — sports injuries. The standard treatment is surgery, with a difficult recuperation lasting six months to a year.
Mr. Ganobcik looked into surgical techniques and decided he wanted a different one than the one his doctor offered. So he saw another sports medicine orthopedist who, agreeing that Mr. Ganobcik’s ligament was torn, scheduled the operation.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ganobcik heard that Dr. Freddie H. Fu, chairman of the division of sports medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, had what might be an even better technique, so he went to see him.
To Mr. Ganobcik’s surprise, Dr. Fu told him his ligament was not torn after all. His pain was from a fracture in a long bone in the lower leg that the other doctors had also noticed was broken. An M.R.I. at the University of Pittsburgh confirmed it, showing a perfectly normal A.C.L. (Dr. Fu adds that Mr. Ganobcik’s original scans had an image that was ambiguous. He wanted a better one, to see if Mr. Ganobcik’s ligament had been partly torn and was healing or had never been torn at all. He would not need surgery with a partial tear, but he would need more careful recuperation.)
Dr. Fu’s suspicions were raised by Mr. Ganobcik’s story. He could never have continued skiing with a torn A.C.L. The diagnosis “made no sense,” Dr. Fu said.
And that, Dr. Fu says, illustrates a common problem: relying on an M.R.I. instead of a history and an exam. Dr. Fu’s diagnosis “was a shock,” Mr. Ganobcik said. “I thought he was going to talk about options for surgery.”
M.R.I.’s can be extremely useful in sports medicine, said Dr. Andrew Green, the chief of shoulder and elbow surgery at Brown University. But, he says, there is a fine line between appropriate use and overuse.
That, at least, is what he found in one of the few studies to address the issue. The ideal study would randomly assign patients to have scans or not and then assess their outcomes. Such a study has not been done. Instead, a few researchers asked if scans made a difference for people who happened to have them. They found they did not — at least in two common situations.
Dr. Green and his colleagues reviewed the records of 101 patients who had shoulder painlasting at least six weeks and that had not resulted from trauma, like a fall. Forty-three arrived bearing M.R.I.’s from a doctor who had seen them previously. The others did not have scans. In all cases, Dr. Green made a diagnosis on the basis of a physical exam, a history, and regular X-rays.
A year later, Dr. Green re-assessed the patients. There was no difference in the outcome of the treatment of the two groups of patients despite his knowledge of the findings on the scans. M.R.I.’s, he said, are not needed for the initial evaluation and treatment of many whose shoulder pain does not result from an actual injury to the shoulder.
Dr. DiGiovanni did a similar study with foot and ankle patients, looking back at 221 consecutive patients over a three-month period, 201 of whom did not have fractures. More than 15 percent arrived with M.R.I.’s obtained by doctors they had seen before coming to Dr. DiGiovanni. Nearly 90 percent of those scans were unnecessary and half had interpretations that either made no difference to the patient’s diagnosis or were at odds with the diagnosis.
“Patients often feel like they are getting better care if people are ordering fancy tests, and there are some patients who come in demanding an M.R.I. — that’s part of the problem,” he said.
Some doctors might also feel they are providing better care if they order the scans, Dr. DiGiovanni said, and doctors often feel that they risk malpractice charges if they fail to scan a patient and then miss a diagnosis.
Dr. Hansen teaches his fellows — doctors in training — to be careful with scans and explains the risks of making the wrong diagnosis if they order them unnecessarily. He also knows it is not easy to refrain from ordering an M.R.I.
It’s different for him, Dr. Hansen says. He is so eminent that patients tend not to question him.
“When I say ‘You don’t need a scan,’ then it’s over,” Dr. Hansen said. His fellows get a different response. Patients, he says, “look at them like, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ “
ALEXANDRIA, VA, October 13, 2011 — A new study suggesting that “the role of the physician gatekeeper in regard to physical therapy may be unnecessary in many cases” could have significant implications for the US health care system, says the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).
The study, published ahead of print September 23 in the journal Health Services Research (HSR), reviewed 62,707 episodes of physical therapy using non-Medicare claims data from a Midwest insurer over a 5-year period. Patients who visited a physical therapist directly for outpatient care (27%) had fewer visits and lower overall costs on average than those who were referred by a physician, while maintaining continuity of care within the overall medical system and showing no difference in health care use in the 60 days after the physical therapy episode.
The study is noteworthy because services delivered by physical therapists account for “a significant portion” of outpatient care costs in the United States, according to the study, and some health insurance plans require a physician referral for reimbursement of these services. In addition, although 46 states and the District of Columbia now allow some form of direct access to physical therapists for treatment/intervention, some of them nonetheless impose restrictions if patients have not been referred by a physician.
“Physical therapists have long known that direct access to our services is safe and effective,” said APTA President R. Scott Ward, PT, PhD. “The elimination of referral requirements and other restrictions has been a priority of APTA for decades. This study provides further evidence that direct access to physical therapists could go a long way toward helping to make health care more affordable and accessible for all. We encourage researchers and insurers to continue to further investigate this important issue that could have a profound impact on patient care.”
“When patients choose direct access to a physical therapist, it does not mean the end of collaboration with their physician, nor does it diminish continuity of care,” added Thomas DiAngelis, PT, DPT, president of APTA’s Private Practice Section. “We believe the results of this study will support our efforts to work with legislators and physician groups to establish policies that reduce unnecessary regulations, improve access, and build models of delivery that best serve the patient and the health care system. Although this study focused on direct access, it is not about the provider. It is about the patient. It means better opportunities to provide the proper care to those who need it, when they need it.”
Led by Jane Pendergast, PhD, professor of biostatistics and director of the Center for Public Health Studies at the University of Iowa, the study retrospectively analyzed 5 years (2003-2007) of private health insurance claims data from a Midwest insurer on beneficiaries aged 18-64 in Iowa and South Dakota. A total of nearly 63,000 outpatient physical therapy episodes of care were analyzed – more than 45,000 were classified as physician-referred and more than 17,000 were classified as “self-referred” to physical therapists. Physical therapy episodes began with the initial physical therapist evaluation and ended on the last date of services before 60 days of no further visits. Episodes were classified as physician-referred if the patient had a physician claim from a reasonable referral source in the 30 days before the start of physical therapy. Researchers found that self-referred patients had fewer physical therapy visits (86% of physician-referred) and lower allowable amounts ($0.87 for every $1.00 of physician-referred) during the episode of care, after adjusting for age, gender, diagnosis, illness severity, and calendar year. In addition, overall related health care use – or care related to the problem for which physical therapy was received, but not physical therapy treatment – was lower in the self-referred group after adjustment. Examples of this type of care might include physician services or diagnostic testing. Potential differences in functional status and outcomes of care were not addressed.
“Health care use did not increase in the self-referred group, nor was continuity of care hindered,” the researchers write. “The self-referred patients were still in contact with physicians during and after physical therapy. Concerns about patient safety, missed diagnoses, and continuity of care for individuals who self-refer may be overstated.”
According to Rick Gawenda, PT, president of APTA’s Section on Health Policy and Administration, the study should cause insurers and policymakers to rethink the physician gatekeeper concept when it comes to physical therapist services. “Evidence shows that, in the case of physical therapy, the physician gatekeeper model is doing exactly the opposite of what it was originally designed to do; it does not reduce ineffective and duplicate care nor reduce health care costs,” says Gawenda. “It’s time to end the physician referral requirement in every state, and it’s time for all payers to embrace direct access to physical therapists.”
Earlier research has supported direct access to physical therapists, but the new HSR study is the most comprehensive to date. A 1994 study analyzed 4 years of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland claims data and found that total paid claims for physician referral episodes to physical therapists were 2.2 times higher than the paid claims for direct access episodes. In addition, physician referral episodes were 65% longer in duration than direct access episodes and generated 67% more physical therapy claims and 60% more office visits. The HSR study looked at a far more extensive number of episodes than the previous study, and also controlled for illness severity and other factors that could have affected the patients’ outcomes.
“In summary,” the researchers write, “our findings do not support the assertion that self-referral leads to overuse of care or discontinuity in care, based on a very large population of individuals in a common private health insurance plan with no requirement for PT [physical therapy] referral or prohibition on patient self-referral. We consistently found lower use in the self-referral group, after adjusting for key demographic variables, diagnosis group, and case mix. We also found that individuals in both groups were similarly engaged with the medical care system during their course of care and afterwards.”
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) represents more than 77,000 physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and students of physical therapy nationwide. Learn more about conditions physical therapists can treat and find a physical therapist in your area atwww.moveforwardpt.com. Consumers are encouraged to follow us on Twitter (@moveforwardpt) andFacebook.
The Practice Practice Section (PPS) is the business section of APTA that fosters the growth, economic viability, and business success of physical therapist-owned practices to benefit the public.
The Section on Health Policy and Administration (HPA) is a specialty component of APTA. The mission of the HPA Section is to transform the culture of physical therapy through initiatives that enhance professionalism, leadership, management, and advocacy to foster excellence in autonomous practice for the benefit of members and society.
Coauthors of the study were Stephanie A. Kliethermes, MS, a doctoral candidate in biostatistics at the Center for Public Health Studies, University of Iowa; Janet K. Freburger, PT, PhD, research associate and fellow at the Sheps Center for Health Services Research and a scientist at the Institute on Aging at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Pamela A. Duffy, PT, PhD, OCS, CPC, assistant professor, Public Health Program, at Des Moines University.
The study was funded by a grant from APTA and its sections on Private Practice and Health Policy and Administration.
1. Pendergast J, Kliethermes SA, Freburger JK, Duffy PA. A comparison of health care use for physician-referred and self-referred episodes of outpatient physical therapy. Health Services Research. Published ahead of print September 23, 2011. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6773.2011.01324.x