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modified STarT Back Tool

“For example, individuals at a low risk of persistent disabled problems can be reassured and discouraged from receiving unnecessary treatments and investigations, while those at high risk can matched to treatment which combines physical and psychological approaches”

For those of you that haven’t read my previous posts on the Start Back Screening Tool, then this first post may not make sense. It is recommended to read those posts before reading this post.

In short, some patients improve without treatment, with simple advice to stay active.

“In addition, an implementation study testing risk stratification for patients with low back pain in routine general practice demonstrated significant improvements in physical function and time off work, sickness certification rates and reductions in healthcare costs compared to usual non-stratified care.”

Who knew? 🤷‍♂️

If we start classifying patients, we tend to get better results.

This should be a no-brained. Two different patients with similar pains may respond completely different to treatments. We need to be able to determine which type of intervention/or lack of intervention is best paired with each type of patient.

Until we get better at understanding the patient and both the patient’s response to movement and belief systems, we will continue to fail a percentage of these patients when they come into the clinic. Some patients will improve regardless of the intervention/treatment.

“GPs are not alone in wanting information about patients’ likely prognosis over time, as >80% of musculoskeletal patients also want prognostic information from their GO, although less than a third actually receive this information”

The fact that almost 1/3 of patients receive information from their physician is surprising to me. With shortened face time with physicians and the incentive to refer within the system in which the GPs operate, I’m surprised that there is enough time to spend educating even 1/3 of patients.

We know that patients want information. What is bothersome to me is that some practitioners, throughout healthcare as a whole, give patients flippant answers without substance. These patients then hang on to that information and allow it to dictate how they live or avoid living life.

To tell a patient with osteoporosis that they will fracture their spine when flexing can produce fear of a movement and greatly impact the patients quality of life. Giving the patient statistics about fracturing, not just with bending but also with staying neutral, allows the patient to have a more active role in decision-making.

The last thing we want to do is to label a patient, or cause a patient to label themself, as having “big bones”, slipped discs, degenerative spines, or as many of my patients say “Uncle Arthur”.

“The distribution of primary pain regions was reported by clinicians as: lower limb 31.1%, Back 28.7%, upper limb 23.5%, neck 11.8%, and multisite pain 4.8%”

The modified STarT Back tool is a version explores more options than back pain only.

“…a modified STarT Back Tool is similarly predictive of 6-month physical health across different musculoskeletal pain regions.”

This type of prognostic data is important for healthcare providers to obtain in order to build a long-term plan for patients beyond simply 3 times per week for 6 weeks of therapy.

What happens to patients after this six weeks?

If we have not educated and empowered the patient, they will become a patient again.

“This implies that the existing STarT Back Tool score cut-point (4 or more out of 9) used to allocate patients with low back pain to the medium-risk/high-risk subgroups cannot simply became applied to patients with other musculoskeletal pain presentations or in different clinical services”

This is pretty self-explanatory. We can’t use a back tool to help us make decisions about a knee pain, neck pain, headache, etc.

“It is found that regardless of body region of pain, higher modified STarT Back Tool scores were associated with higher levels of kinesiophobia, catastrophising, fear avoidance, anxiety and depressive symptoms.”

Kinesiophobia is fear of movement. Catastrophising is making a bigger deal out of a situation than it actually is. Fear avoidance is actively avoiding an activity for fear of making oneself worse.

None of these descriptors are good, but you know what…we work with them in physical therapy.

Let me say this differently…a good physical therapist will work on these issues, but not all address these issues.

For more information on projects that I am working on, please visit my podcast

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Go to Physical Therapy to be Physical…think again

“affecting 60% to 80% of individuals during their lifetime”

This statistic gets thrown around so much that all PTs should know this without thinking about it.

LBP is such a common occurrence that many non-healthcare professionals are giving advice about how to fix it.

I was at a fundraiser recently and I heard people talking about back pain as part of the conversations had between laypeople. This is how prevalent that it has become, discussions of back pain have made their way into everyday conversation. Everyone and their mother has a remedy for it.

I heard about cutting out sugars, rolling on tennis balls and soaking in Epsom salt. It wasn’t until someone in the group turned to me (they had a previous knowledge of the website) that people stopped giving advice and started asking for information.

The public wants information. On that note, if you’ve found any information from this website helpful…please share it so others can learn.

“total annual direct healthcare costs in the United States incurred by patients with LBP were estimated at $90 billion in 1998, 60% higher than individuals without LBP.”

🤔

Sounds like we can start to create a change in total costs if we could just be better at treating this issue.

Back pain is top 5 reasons a person seeks out a healthcare provider.

We are spending so much money on this problem…you’d think we’d be making a dent in the number of people with back pain, and the expenses incurred for this ailment.

Nope!

Reading the rest of this post will start to shed light on why our system, as a whole, has a lot of sucky (scientific term 👍) parts.

“Recent reports suggest that the use of physical therapy for patients with LBP is increasing.”

This makes so many people tho I that our profession (as a PT) is booming. Yes, there is a bigger pool of patients daily, but insurance payments have been decreasing for decades.

This is a different conversation, but it also plays a role in why clinicians may choose on intervention over another.

Soapbox

***For instance, if there are 3 people in the clinic at the same time (which could be considered fraudulent if this is occurring for patients using Medicare as insurance), the therapist has to make the patient perform some activities independently (which also should not be billed for patients with Medicare) or they would have to place the patient on a non-effective piece of equipment in order to be paid, while the PT works with another patient. ***

It then makes sense that the use of PT is increasing if we are performing ineffective techniques in order to maximize reimbursement. Not all PTs operate in this fashion, but if the above scenario sounds familiar…go get a second, third or fourth opinion.

“…Consistent in recommending an active approach to pair with emphasis on maintaining and promoting activity, while avoiding passive interventions such as bed rest or physical methods (heat/cold, ultrasound, etc.)”

Look folks, doing nothing gets you nothing. We know this in many aspects of life. Don’t work, don’t get paid. This is no different.

If the patient doesn’t play an active role in the process of rehabilitation, the results tend to be no better than doing nothing…because that’s exactly what the patient is doing in many cases.

For instance, if a patient goes to physical therapy and the patient lays there while “therapy” is performed on the patient, then the patient has little active role aside from showing up and paying.

This has become such a problem in our profession that our national organization had to come up with a short read to help patients understand what generic therapy look like during an episode of care.

“…Adherence to this recommendation for an active approach was associated with better clinical outcomes of physical therapy, with fewer visits in lower charges for care.”

If a patient learns a home program that has been shown, in the clinic, to be effective at reducing that specific patient’s complaint, why should that patient go to a physical therapy session to get unproven passive treatment or to simply repeat the same exercises over and over?

I’ll wait for your response…because I don’t know the answer to this question aside from the fact that increasing a patient’s frequency in therapy also increases the total profits of the company benefitting from the therapy.

“… it is now understood that the natural history of LBP includes subsequent periods of exacerbation and recurrence for most individuals.”

A high percentage of patients, anywhere from 25% up to 80%, experience multiple periods of low back pain during the lifespan.

How one defines recurrence has a huge role in how this number is determined. It used to be that researchers would look at a group of patients with low back pain and then see how many of them had back pain one year later. The problem with this approach is that for many of the patients, the pain never went away from the first episode.

How can this be classified as a recurrence if it never went away?!

Better questions were then asked and about 25% of patients experience at least a period of one month of relief before having a recurrence.

Because of this, it is prudent for the PT (physical therapist, not personal trainer) to teach the patient how to self-manage and to reduce as many risk factors that one particular patient has for developing back pain in the future.

“The ratio of active: passive codes had to be at least 3:1 for each phase, and every visit had to have at least one active code for the patient care to be considered inherent to guideline recommendations.”

I think that this is very conservative.

This means that for each hour a patient is seen, anywhere from 8-22 minutes are spent on manual (hands on) therapy, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, heat, ice.

The other 38-52 minutes are spent working on balance, exercise, returning to a functional activity.

This type of scenario would allow for 3 units of an active charge (75% of the session) and 1 unit of a passive charge (25% of the session).

Keep in mind, a clinician doesn’t have to follow this type of ratio, but a higher ratio of passive treatment is not consistent with the guidelines of treating patients with back pain.

“Consistent with previous studies, a successful outcome was defined as achieving at least 50% improvement on the 0SW – disability score.”

I’ve seen many patients that have gone through an episode of care without any relief before coming to see me in the clinic. For patients to get a 50% improvement in symptoms and ability to live the life they want, many would be happy with that outcome. In the research, we see as little as a 2-3 point change being considered significant when using the (pain scale). A 50% improvement is considered significant.

“471 patients with LBP met the criteria for inclusion. (18-60y, at least 3 visits of PT, duration of PT at least 10 days, initial OSW >10%, and no surgery recorded)”

This simply shows that there were a large number of patients that could be studied.

The inclusion criteria is important because it’s hard to take a study and apply it to a patient that doesn’t fit the inclusion criteria. For instance, this study included people from age 18-60. The results of the study may not apply to those under the age of 18 or over the age of 60.

Also, the study may not be applicable to those that experienced a back surgery.

“132 patients (28.0%) received adherent care and 339 (72.0%) received non-adherent care.”

Less than 1/3 received care that was consistent adherent to an active plan of care. This is disturbing!

This means that many patients going to therapy are having treatment DONE TO THEM instead of DONE WITH THEM!

There are many treatments that can be billed without the therapist directly treating the patient one-one. For instance, mechanical traction can be performed while the therapist is treating another patient. Other treatments that can be performed while the PT is treating another patient is “electrical stimulation”, moist heat and cold packs.

“Patient receiving adherent care experience greater improvement in disability, and pain intensity, and were more likely to experience a successful physical therapy outcome than patient receiving nonadherent care.”

This literally means that when patients are doing more for themselves, they get more from PT. It doesn’t have to be hard.

The PT should act as the guide in order to introduce the patient into a more pain-free, more functional and self-sustaining state. If the PT is acting as the “hero” of your story and not the “guide” in your story, it may be time to find another PT.

“Patient receiving adherent care also attended fewer physical therapy visits, had a shorter length of stay, and lower charges for physical therapy care.”

Fewer therapy visits = less money!

Is it getting easier to see why some clinics are more than happy to perform traction and electrical stimulation to patients?

💵💸💰

In the end, the patients are rarely at the center of care. Physical therapy is also is a business. Businesses function based on profit.

When you find a PT that treats you as a patient and not a $$$, then you have found the right person.

“296 patients (62.8%) had billed charges for additional healthcare related to the management of LBP in the 1-year period After completion of the physical therapy episode of care.”

It is common for patients with back pain to go to multiple providers, such as pain management, orthopedic surgeons, chiropractors and other PTs in order to seek treatment throughout the year.

“Receiving adherent care was associated with decreased use of prescription medication…also associated with a decreased likelihood of receiving diagnostic imaging procedures…associated with decrease use of MRI”

This is simply saying that when patients do more activity in physical therapy (PT), that the patient is less likely to seek out imaging.

There could be many reasons for this outside of just being active in therapy. This is purely conjecture, but if the therapist is able to educate the patient on when imaging is needed and the patient buys in, then it may have a rom in future imaging.

If the therapist demonstrates to the patient that they are strong and robust through the exercises or movements performed in therapy, then the patient may believe that the injury is less severe than initially believed.

If the therapist can change the patients belief system in order to understand that what is seen in imaging may not give them the answer they are looking for, the patient may be less likely to get imaging.

The one constant in all of this is the patient-PT relationship. It may be harder to foster that patient in an environment where multiple patients are being seen at the same time compared to when a patient is seen one-one.

These are great questions to ask when calling a PT clinic to inquire about treatment prior to actually signing up

1. How comfortable are your PTs at treating LBP

2. Do I need to use electrical stimulation and how many patients is this used on in your clinic?

3. Will the therapist be treating more than one patient at a time?

You have the right to this information prior to signing up. If you don’t care about this information, then don’t bother. If it is important to you that you have the individual attention you are paying for…ask away.

“Similar to other healthcare providers, it appears that physical therapy care for patients with LBP is characterized by widespread and unwarranted variations in practice”

We see PTs using craniosacral therapy , dry needling, MDT and other methods/interventions to treat back pain. Because of the variability, it is imperative that the PT ask about previous treatments because there is no common standard with physical therapy.

“…it may be surprising that adherence to an active approach has been reported to be low in studies of both primary care physicians and physical therapists”

Nope! ❌🙅‍♂️

When determining what interventions have the least amount of friction in order to get paid, the passive interventions win every time.

It’s unfortunate, but until insurance based physical therapy is linked to total costs for the treatment issued to a patient (such as a large lump sum issued to the clinic at the beginning of the year in order to manage a patients physical therapy needs and complaints), we will continue to see passive treatments as they reimburse with little time spent with patients.

Excerpts from:

Fritz JM, Cleland JA, Speckman M et al. Physical Therapy for Acute Low Back Pain: Associations with Subsequent Healthcare Costs. Spine. 2008;33:1800-1805.



Start Back Screening Tool

“Lifetime prevalence for LBP (low back pain) has been reported to be between 60% and 95% and 34% of the participants in a large population study in Norway reported to have had LBP last week”

These numbers are scary, but are consistent with other published research that notes about 80% of the population will have back pain at some point in life. Think of how lucky you would have to be to go an entire lifetime without having back pain based on these numbers?

It can happen, as I’ve seen patients in their 80’s with a first time occurrence of back pain.

The part that is sad for me, as a PT, is that less than 10% of these people will ever get in to see a PT for back pain.

“Due to the lack of diagnostic tests that can identify objective signs of the condition, most of the patients are characterized as having ‘non-specific LBP'”

If you’re not familiar with the numbers, it has been said that any diagnosis trying to name a specific tissue (disc herniation, arthritis, spondylisthesis, spinal stenosis etc) is only correct about 10% of the time. The more severe the diagnosis the more likely that the specific tissue is the correct diagnosis (such as a tumor, spinal cord injury, infection).

Because of this, a majority (90%) of back pain is just labeled as “non-specific low back pain”. The problem with this is that the treatment for a non-specific problem tends to be…non-specific.

Don’t get me wrong, a majority of back pain doesn’t need much treatment, if any at all, and tends to improve over the course of 6 weeks. Some pains from the back require a specific treatment and a treatment outside of this Specific treatment can worsen symptoms.

This means that we have to actually attempt to classify a patient’s presentation. Understand please that a classification is not a diagnosis but instead more of putting the symptoms into a non-specific “bucket” that most resemble that presentation. For instance, there could be a bucket for fast changing, slow changing and unchanging. There could be buckets for a primarily psychosocial component, chemical component or a bio mechanical component.

“Based on the SBT (Keele Start Back Tool) scores, patients can be categorized into three subgroups: patients with low, medium, or high risk for developing persistent LBP and activity limitations….the low risk group should receive minor attention from health professionals and self management strategies are recommended for these patients. The medium risk group should be offered physiotherapy. For the high risk group more psychologically informed interventions are recommended”

This statement may upset some of my colleagues in PT, but we aren’t always needed for patients that experience back pain. For instance, it is advocated to see a PT if you have pain lingering more than a couple of Days. I’m not sure I completely agree with this, as much back pain reduces spontaneously. The last thing you, as the patient should want is to pay for unneeded treatments. The last thing that I want to do as a PT is to take a patients money if I am not needed at that time.

Again, don’t get me wrong there is a group of patients, with back pain, that should be treated by a Physical Therapist. These patients will score higher on the Start Back Screening Tool.

With that said, it is important that the patient be classified correctly within the first 6 weeks of experiencing symptoms. Some research demonstrates an early classification is beneficial and others demonstrate that it should be done within 6 weeks of symptoms. The reason for this is that the patient may benefit from more psychologically informed interventions, which should be performed by someone with

“To be useful as a screening tool in physiotherapy practice, it is important that the SBT-scoring is reliable and that the allocation to risk groups reflects the severity of the patients back problems.”

There are two things that we look at in terms of performing testing. One, is the test valid. This means does the test actually tell us what we think it tells us.

The second thing is reliability. This means that if I have multiple therapist from different settings performing the same exact task, would I get similar or exact scoring if performed on the same exact patient by different therapists.

“The SBT consists of nine items; referred leg pain, comorbid pain, disability, bothersomeness, catastrophizing, fear, anxiety, and depression…. The total score range from 0 to9, with nine indicating worst prognosis. The last five items are summarized into a psychosocial sub scale with five as the maximal score, indicating high risk for development of chronic LBP”

For more information about scoring, I personally like to use the Shirley Ryan website of outcome measures found here.

“Patients with a total score of 0-3 are classified as low risk (minimal treatment, eg self-management strategies).

I use this tool frequently in PT. I rarely have patients score a 3 or less, but this may be because they are already filtered out by the physician in primary care.

I recently had a patient score a 3 and lo and behold his symptoms were abolished in 6 weeks without intervention.

It’s a small sample size, but it seems to match the research.

To summarize: the STarT Back Screening Tool is an option to utilize in practice in order to determine if a patient

1. Requires little/no intervention and will return to prior level of function (PLOF) through regression to the mean (time > interventions).

2. Requires PT/Rehab only

3. Requires a more psychologically intensive approach to care.

Click here for original research article.

STarT Back Screening tool revisited

“…changes in psychosocial risk factors during the course of treatment may provide important information for a patient’s long-term prognosis”

As professionals, we should be performing repeated assessments of patients during the plan of care (POC) and not waiting until the patient is ready for discharge (either because their benefits have been exhausted, the insurance company dictates that an assessment needs to be performed or the patient self-discharged). Performing repeated assessments throughout the POC allows us, as professionals, to understand if the patient is improving, worsening or remaining unchanged with care and to assist us in modifying the POC.

The STarT Back Screening Tool is one method of assessing psychosocial factors that may impede rehab potential.

“… repeated assessments during an episode of care can also provide valuable information about changes in a given variable that can be used for treatment monitoring”

Utilizing a standardized approach to assessing a patient will enable the professional (PT in my case) to determine if a patient is catastrophizing, losing hope, or requires the assistance of a more psychologically focused treatment approach.

“The STarT Back Tool (SBT) is a Screening questionnaire consisting of nine items related to physical and psychosocial statements that are used to categorize patients based on risk (low, medium, or high) for persistent LBP-related disability.”

Here is a copy of the tool in question.

“Wideman et al found that early changes in SBT scores were predictive of four month treatment related changes in several relevant psychological and clinical outcome measures.”

This is a little different than what is expected from an outcome tool. For instance, many tools are utilized to tell the clinician where the patient is at currently and if this patient Hs a risk of developing chronic pain.

When we utilize multiple scores instead of a standalone score, this is indicative of how a patient will progress over the course of time.

“all patients (in this study) were referred for physical therapy by a physician and did not seek physical therapy services through direct access… this setting was considered secondary care.”

This is an important topic. For instance, the previous blog post indicated that the tool gives us information when read minister over a 4-week time period. This indicates that there are changes that occur over the course of 4 weeks.

Many complaints of low back pain improve independently over the course of 6 weeks. If a patient is issued this test at the first visit and classified as low, medium or high, this may lead to an inaccurate classification. Seeing as this study issued the tool to patients in a secondary care (meaning that the patients were referred by a physician) indicates that the patient is not being seen within the first few days of injury.

“1. Aged 18-65 years,

2. Seeking physical therapy for LBP (symptoms are T12 or lower, including radiating pain into the buttocks and lower extremity), and

3. Able to read and speak English”

“treatment was not standardized or tracked in this study and was provided at the discretion of the physical therapist.”

This may also be an issue, as there is a newer study that indicates the treatment interventions may have a role in the patient’s scoring.

Please see the previous post about how to utilize this tool.

“…123 patients (84.2% of the entire sample) who completed the SBT at intake and 4 weeks…The percent of patients for each SBT risk category who were classified differently at intake and four weeks was 81.8% for SBT high risk, 76.0% for SPT medium risk and 11.3% for SBT low risk.”

This indicates that a patient’s initial score should be interpreted with caution because there is a high probability that it will change over the course of 4 weeks.

“most patients either improved (48.8%) or remained stable (40.6%) based on changes in SBT categorization.”

“Thirteen (10.6%) patients were categorized as worsened based on changes in SBT categorization, with six of those patients categorized as SB team high-risk at intake and four weeks later.”

This is interesting to me. Typically, in PT, a therapist will cite regression to the mean. This essentially states that given time the patient will transition from an extreme score towards a more moderate score. This doesn’t account for those that transition from a moderate score towards a more extreme score. To me, this indicates that the episode of care had an effect, albeit a negative effect, on this patient encounter.

Primary findings of this present study were as follows:

1. At over 4 weeks, approximately 11% of patients worsened SBT risk;

2. Clinicians should be less confident in the stability of an intake SBT categorization of high risk than that of medium and low risk;

3. Prediction of 6-month pain intensity scores was not improved when considering intake or 4-week change for SBT categorization; and

4. Prediction of 6-month disability scores was improved when considering intake, 4-week, and 4-week-change SBT categorization”

This indicates that the first measurement may not be a good indication of what will take place with the patient regarding disability over time and some patients can be made worse with therapy. We already knew the second part from previous blog posts.

Excerpts from:

Beneciuk JM, Fritz J, George SZ. The STarT Back Screening Tool for Prediction of 6-month Clinical Outcomes: Relevance of Change Patterns in Outpatient Physical Therapy Settings. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2014;44(9):656-664.

Cervical myelopathy: how to test clinically

“… The onset is often insidious with long periods of episodic, stepwise progression, and may present with a vast array of clinical findings from patient to patient.”

Cervical myelopathy is like neck pain to the extreme. It isn’t just a neck issue, but it ends up encompassing anything below the neck. It can cause arm symptoms, leg symptoms, difficulty walking, weakness throughout the body, spastic robot-like walking, and breathing issues.

This is a neck problem that needs to be addressed ASAP!

Let’s take a look at some of the research on this problem, what your therapist should check, and when it’s time for the patient to be sent back to a physician for imaging to determine if the patient is a candidate for surgery…it is that important.

Some quick stories (or not so quick).

I’ve had two patients with cervical myelopathy. One patient had symptoms of this, but also had arm problems from a previous injury. Because of this, the CSM (cervical spine myelopathy) was delayed in diagnosis until the patient demonstrated abnormal gait…10 months later!

The second case was picked up in the clinic immediately on the first day. I performed this cluster, to be learned later, on the patient and he was very positive. We had a conversation about the need for imaging and a consult with a neurosurgeon. The patient essentially said…thanks but no thanks.

Unfortunately this patient lost use of his hands and developed a walking pattern that was very abnormal before he decided that surgery was the right choice.

Here’s a quick Video describing CSM.

“May involve lower extremities first, weakness of the legs, and spasticity”

Spasticity is an issue that could be seen in walking for some people, but is testing using movements under speed like in this Video

What we will see is that the body reflexively slows down or stops the movement from happening rapidly.

“lower motor neuron findings in the upper extremities such as loss of strength, atrophy, and difficulty in fine finger movements, may present”

This means that we may see generalized weakness, loss of muscle mass (smaller muscles) and difficulty with picking up pennies and buttoning buttons.

“neck stiffness, shoulder pain, paresthesias in one or both arms or hands, or radiculopathic signs”

Neck stiffness is self explanatory. The neck movement may not be fluid or it may be restricted due to pain. There may be symptoms such as pain, tingling or numbness radiating into the shoulder(s) regions, arm(s) region or down to the hand(s) region. We may also see changes in sensation or reflexes.

“An MRI is most useful because the tool expresses the amount of compression placed on the spinal cord, and demonstrates relatively high levels of sensitivity and specificity.”

There is little reason for a PT to recommend an MRI, unless there are specific conditions found during the evaluation. The type of presentation notes above is one reason for a PT to recommend an MRI to the referring physician or the patient’s primary care physician.

X-rays do not do a good job of demonstrating any soft tissue (muscle/spinal cord/disc/ligaments/tendons) abnormalities.

Mind you, this presentation is not common and for the most part, an early MRI is not indicated for neck or back pain.

“The tests, when used alone, are not overtly diagnostic and may lead to a number of false negatives and in rare occasions, false positives”

It is recommended that, when CSM is suspected, the physical therapist use the cluster (groups) of testing in order to strengthen the likelihood of this suspicion. One test used alone is not enough to consider other testing.

“in reality, the diagnosis of CSM involves MRI findings and clinical findings, with equal weighting of both results”

Because the clinical exam is so important for this diagnosis and subsequent imaging, it is important that the PT and physician be familiar with the testing described.

“Of the 10 variables included in the regression modeling, the tests of Babinski and Hoffman’s signs, the Inverted Supinator sign, gait Abnormality, and age > 45 years were retained.”

I’ll be honest. In my first 10 years, I never tested for the inverted supinate sign or Hoffman’s sign until I read this paper. This is a testimony to continuing one’s education beyond taking courses. I don’t recall (those that know me know that I have a pretty good memory) ever learning this cluster through any of the coursework that I took since 2007.

After reading this article, I practiced these tests on a bunch of healthy individuals, those with neck pain in which I didn’t suspect a spinal cord issue, so that I could get better st the test and understand the normal response. This way, I learned the test mechanics and felt confident performing the test on anyone. It enabled me to understand the difference between the “healthy” patients on which I tested this specific cluster and the few in which had a positive test.

Rant: I hear it from so many students and new grads that they feel like they haven’t learned how to perform the tests or what to see as a result of the test because they only get to test healthy individuals. Having gone through the mechanics of this cluster for years, I hope that students understand that they must become confident at performing the mechanics of the test (kinesthetic learning) and know how a healthy response looks. One may go his/her entire career without ever seeing this presentation, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t perform the test and understand a normal result. I bring this up because I hear the same type of arguments regarding vestibular testing and ocular testing.

Every patient that has a history of stroke gets a vestibular-ocular exam because there may be lingering positive testing after the neurological event. This again strengthens my ability to perform the test and increases my likelihood that I will see positive testing…so I know what it looks like for future patient evaluations that may come in off of the street through direct access.

“A finding that included three of five positive tests yielded a positive likelihood ratio of 30.9 and a post test probability of 94%”

Even if you’re not a statistician, this is important information.

A positive likelihood ratio greater than 10 is an indication that your testing is giving a result that increases the chances of that being the diagnosis.

A post-test probability of 94% indicates that there is less than a 10% chance that the diagnosis or classification is incorrect after testing.

This is a much better percentage than we have of most orthopedic issues.

“”this study found that selected combinations of clinical findings that consisted of (1) gait deviation; (2) + Hoffman’s sign; (3) inverted supinator sign; (4) + Babinski test and (5) age > 45 years were affective in ruling out and ruling in cervical spine myelopathy.”

If you are a student and plan on treating patients…you must know these tests.

If you are a therapist treating these patients…you must know, be confident administering and understand the repercussions of a positive test.

If you are a patient…know that not all therapists have the same training and some may not even know these tests exist. I hope this makes you take a more thoughtful approach in choosing your next PT.

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Medicare for all

Are you paying attention?

Medicare for all would not be a great option, since we can barely sustain Medicare for some.

Government has to get more and more creative in order to make the 💰 last longer.

Part of that creativity is to reduce output.

Another part of that will be to increase revenue to this system.

Reducing output is easy. They are simply paying less for services and taking less risk than previous years.

For instance, ACO (hospitals and other entities) are seeing less reimbursement than previous years for the same procedure.

Less income means that the hospitals have to find other ways to generate income or to become “leaner” in their operations. This may mean less one-one time for PTs.

What do you think the solution should be?

See some of the comments to understand why we are running into problems.

Patients with Medicare using PT

“Services were required because the individual needed therapy services”

For a person to need therapy services, they must have a plan of care certified as necessary by a physician or other referring professional.

“A plan for furnishing such services has been established by a physician/NPP or by a therapist providing such services and is Eperiodically reviewed by a physician/NPP”

A PT is allowed to establish a plan of care for patients, but the insurance doesn’t necessarily have to pay for it. In order for Medicare to pay for a plan of care that is established by a physical therapist, a physician or other referring provider must sign off on that plan of care.

“Services are or were furnished while the individual is or was under the care of a physician…In certifying an outpatient plan of care for therapy a physician/NPP is certifying that the above conditions are met. Certification is required for coverage and payment of a therapy claim.”

If a physician/NPP provides a referral at the time of evaluation, this ensures that the patient was under the care of a referral source at the time of the evaluation. This becomes important because there are patients that will wait to start therapy for months or years after a referral was issued. There is not guarantee that the referral source will certify the POC at this later date. If this POC is not certified, then the treatment will not be covered by Medicare.

“Claims submitted for outpatient PT, OT, and SLP services must contain the National Provider (NPI) of the certifying physician identified for a PT, OT, and SLP plan of care”

Although this is a technicality, this may cause a denial of payment if the NPI number, of the referring professional, is not included on claims.

“Although there is no Medicare requirement for an order, when documented in the medical record, an order provided evidence that the patient both needs therapy services and is under the care of a physician. The certification requirements are met when the physician certifies the plan of care”

Again, this needs to be reiterated over and and over, the patient needs to be under the care of a physician when in physical therapy. The referral can serve to show that the patient was under the care of a physician at the time of the initial evaluation. In the end, the only thing that matters is that the physician/NPP signs off on the plan of care established by the PT.

“Payment is dependent on the certification of the plan of care rather than the order, but the use of an order is prudent to determine that a physician is involved in care and available to certify the plan”

Have you had enough of this yet.

Do you think that there is a reason this is spelled out so frequently in the documentation?

Some don’t follow the rules of the game.

“The services must relate relate directly and specifically to a written treatment plan as described…must be established before treatment is begun…written or dictated.”

We all know that a plan is required.

Some don’t know how to write frequency and duration.

Some don’t know how to write interventions, or some perform interventions not written.

They must be written and signed off on in order to perform.

“The signature and professional identity of the person who established the plan, and date it was established must be recorded with the plan”

No brainer…or is it?

Stamped signatures are not signatures according to CMS, and stamps are not approved.

“Outpatient therapy services shall be furnished under a plan established by:

A physician/NPP

The physical therapist who will provide the physical therapy services”

This is critical. A therapist doesn’t need to have a POC signed if the physician/NPP creates the plan and it is abided by the PT verbatim.

Also, the PT doesn’t need to be licensed if practicing under a physician.

“The plan may be entered into the patient’s therapy record either by the person who established the plan or by the provider’s or supplier’s staff when they make a written record of that person’s oral orders before treatment is begun.”

This is a formality, but it has to do with dictating a note. Treatment can not be started by anyone other than the PT or immediately supervised by the PT that created the plan, before it is entered into record.

“The evaluation and treatment may occur and are both billable either on the same day or at subsequent visits.”

I tend to do one billable unit on the days of an evaluation. This is based on how much time you spend with the patient covering an intervention, or if an untamed intervention is performed.

“Therapy may be initiated by qualified professionals or qualified personnel based on a dictated plan. Treatment may begin before the plan is committed to writing only if the treatment is performed or supervised by the same clinician who established the plan”

This means that the PT or PTA can start treatment on the initial visit. The PT must be in the office supervising the PTA at this point.

Some people, like Anthony Maritato, use this method to establish a relationship between the treating therapist and the patient.

Others, like Rick Gawenda, find this to be a less efficient use of time.

“It is acceptable to treat under two separate plans of care when different physicians/NPP refer a patient for different conditions. It is also acceptable to combine the plans of care into one plan covering both conditions if one or the other referring physician/NPP is willing to certify the plan for both conditions”

I’ve seen some clinic totally prefer to treat the patient 2x/week for one ailment and 2x/week for another ailment.

Take a guess why…it sure ain’t for the patient’s benefit.

Medicare limits how many units can be charged in a session (essentially how much money can be paid in a session). If there is a way around this, you can bet that money hungry clinics will find this workaround.

“The plan of care shall contain, at minimum, the following information as required by regulation:

Diagnosis

Long term goals

Type amount and frequency of therapy services”

The evaluation doesn’t need much. It would be great if it established medical necessity, but is it required…NOPE!

The diagnosis can either be ICD codes or the written diagnosis since it is not spelled out.

“Long term treatment goals should be developed for the entire episode of care in the current setting”

This is something new to many therapists. Medicare doesn’t specifically require short term goals. If they are not required, do they need to be done? In school it is taught to set short term goals as a step towards the long term goal. In reality, every minute counts. The time spent creating and typing short term goals could be used elsewhere. Creating short term goals is literally robbing Peter to pay Paul, but Paul doesn’t need the money.

“…long term goals may be specific to the part of the episode that is being certified. Goals should be measurable and pertain to identified functional impairments”

Goals should be measurable and timely. They should relate to function. There is a lot of grey area in this portion. Subjective measurements are not the most reliable and maybe shouldn’t be used in goal writing.

I see frequently “to increase hip abduction strength to 4/5”

This goal is measurable, albeit loosely and has no tie to function.

I personally like to use outcome measures and specific functional testing in my goal writing. For instance, the patient will improve the (TUG, Tinetti, Berg, chair rise, single leg stance, lower/upper extremity functional scale, yellow flag risk form) in order to …

“…documentation should state the clinical reasons progress cannot be shown”

This is built into many EMRs now.

Sometimes I will write that the symptoms are not reducible through movement or modulation. Other times, I will write that the patient is not consistent with the HEP. Sometimes, it’s that it is a maintenance case and the patient is unsafe to perform exercises with an untrained professional due to fall risk, BP fluctuations or rapidly changing SpO2.

This is where it really pays off to have read some of the textbooks that were recommended in PT school. I particularly recommend the ACSM handbook.

“The amount of treatment refers to the number of times in a day the type of treatment will be provide…one treatment session a day is assumed”

In an outpatient setting, this is typically one. In an acute or subacute setting it may be BID (twice in a day) or even TID (thrice in a day).

“The frequency refers to the number of times in a week the type of treatment is provided”

I struggle with this one. Many therapists are putting 3 times per week for 4 weeks on all their plans. This isn’t being done because they believe it’s what is best for the patient, but because there is a corporate policy to get as many visits in per week as able.

I get frustrated with this type of plan. If you are a therapist and working in this setting, but only putting this plan down to keep from rocking the boat…you are abusing Medicare and should call CMS to report this activity.

Please and thank you.

“The duration is the number of weeks, or the number of treatment sessions, for THIS plan of care.”

This question is asked frequently. I will typically put down the number of weeks if I know that the surgeon only wants so many weeks of PT per a protocol. If it is not protocol based, the. I will typically put down the total number of visits expected for the episode.

Many of my patients (>80%) require an authorization and are typically given 12 visits to start. In this case, I will make the plan for 12 visits or 90 days, whichever comes sooner. I know that I have to do a progress note and get a recertification and ask for more visits at this time anyways.

“It may be appropriate for therapists to taper the frequency of visits as the patient progresses toward and independent or caregiver assisted self-management program with the intent of improving outcomes and limiting treatment time.”

Again, I frequently get 12 visits to start. I try to make these visits as worthwhile for the patient as possible. For some cases I will see 3 times per week, but for many I will see 1 visit per week or 2 per 10 days. This way we are able to see the patient for the timeline of change that is expected. For instance, strength usually occurs in the first 6 weeks due to neuromuscular changes and hypertrophy happens after this timeframe. If we are seeing the patient for 12 visits in 4 weeks, then we may have exhausted the benefits before noting the change.

To me, that is a waste. Many patients agree with me on this because we make the POC together based on their finances (copays need to be paid each day regardless of how many times you are seen per week), work schedules and need/expectation to change over a given time period.

Again…PTs, if you don’t have this autonomy to create your own Plan of Care, are you truly an autonomous practitioner or are you simply a technician that is doing what a higher figure is telling you to do?

“When tapered frequency is planned, the exact Number of treatments per frequency level is not required to be projected in the plan, because the changes should be made based on assessment of daily progress”

This is one of the aspects that I take advantage of in the plan. At this point, I will write 12 visits over 12 weeks or 12 visits over 6 weeks. This way I may start at 3 visits and taper down to one visit per week.

“The clinician should consider any comorbidities, tissue healing, the ability of the patient and/or caregiver to do more independent self-management as treatment progresses, and any other factors related to frequency and duration of treatment”

I had a patient that hadn’t walked in years. The person had fluctuating blood pressures with activity and at times therapy was halted due to elevated BP. This patient was not safe to perform gait training independently due to fall risk and intermittent cardiac crises. This patient was treated 1-2 times per week with gait training and performed a Nu Step at home. The interventions that were skilled were performed in the clinic and the unskilled interventions were issued for HEP.

“…optional elements: short term goals, goals and duration for the current episode of care, specific treatment interventions, procedures, modalities or techniques and the amount of each.”

As much as this says “optional”, I’m not sure it is fully optional. For instance, this report notes that a therapist did not have the type of intervention in his POC as one of many reasons for repayment.

“Changes to procedures and modalities do not require physician signature when they represent adjustments to the plan that result from a normal progression in the patient’s disease or condition or adjustments to the plan due to the lack of expected response unchanged. Only when the patient’s condition changes significantly, making revision of term goals necessary, is a physician/NPP’s signature required on the change.”

For me personally, when there is a major change in status that requires a change in goals and expectations, I phone the physician and alert the medical team to the change in status. I feel that it is important to relay this information to the physician personally, in addition to writing a progress note or re-evaluation.

“Certification requires a dated signature on the plan of care or some other document that indicates approval of the plan of care… The date of the certification is signed is important to determine if it is timely or delayed”

This small detail is important. Although the physician may sign it, it also must be dated. I’ve had to send many evaluations back for a date.

“The physician/NPP’s certification of the plan satisfies all of the certification requirements noted above in (section) 220.1 for the duration of the plan of care, or 90 calendar days from the date of the initial evaluation, whichever is less.”

This is where things get confusing. If you set your plan for 90 days, then everything is good and no confusion.

If you set your plan for 6 weeks, then you would need to get another certification past 6 weeks.

I’ve seen some therapists just write the plan for 90 days on each evaluation in order to check the 90 day box. Don’t be that person. Put thought into your plan and don’t just set up your plan for 90 days because it’s the maximal allowable in one episode.

My duration varies from 4 weeks for acute back pain, 6 weeks for vestibular dizziness up to 12 weeks for neurological disorders. The only downside of doing this is that there is paperwork more frequently. The upside is that it forces a reassessment, which indicates whether or not a patient is responding to care.

“…the physician/NPP shall certify the initial plan as soon as it is obtained, or within 30 days of the initial therapy treatment.”

At my clinic, we have a spreadsheet that has the evaluation name, date and signature (yes/no). Once the signature is obtained, the name is removed from the spreadsheet.

Also, when discharging a chart we have a checklist of items that are expected to be in the chart. The signed evaluation is one of these items on the checklist.

“Evidence of diligence in providing the plan to the physician may be considered by the Medicare contractor during review in the event of a delayed certification”

Again, this is more of a standard operating procedure. When a note is faxed to a physician, the fax cover letter becomes a part of the record. This is done to demonstrate that due diligence was performed in attempting to get a note signed.

“Payment and coverage conditions require that the plan must be reviewed, as often as necessary but at least whenever it is certified or re-certified to complete the certification requirements. It is not required that the same physician/NPP who participated initially in recommending and planning the patient care certify and/or re-certify the plans”

This is also an opportunity for PTs. If a patient has a better relationship with the PCP compared to the orthopedic surgeon, it may be prudent to have the patient get the PCP to sign off on the recertification.

“If the physician wishes to restrict the patient’s treatment beyond a certain date when a visit is required, the physician should certify a plan only until the date of the visit.”

The evaluation template that we use from Theraoffice provides an area for the physician to change the plan if deemed appropriate.

“Certifications and recertification’s by Doctors of podiatric medicine must be consistent with the scope of the professional services provided by a doctor of podiatric medicine as authorized by applicable state law… Chiropractors may not certify or recertify plans of care for therapy services.”

This is huge. For instance, a podiatrist physician is only allowed to write a referral for their scope of practice. Seeing a patient from a podiatrist for an ailment that is outside of the scope of practice may result in a sticky situation, like Seinfeld encountered.

Also, Chiropractic physicians are not allowed to certify plans of care for PT. This applies to Medicare. You must be aware of the patient’s insurance in order to determine if other insurances have the same regulations.

“… The provider is precluded from charging the beneficiary for services denied as a result of missing certification”

This means that the provider or company that the provider work for will hound the physician’s office to get the evaluation or progress report signed. Otherwise, the amount paid was not approved to be performed.

The clinics are not allowed to charge the patient due to a lack of certification.

This is not meant to be legal advice, as this is my take on the Important passages from This manual regarding our profession.

If in need of more information on Medicare compliance, check out Nancy Beckley or Rick Gawenda

Second opinion

How many people will choose to get a second opinion before going in for a major surgery?

I would hope 💯%!

I had an awesome conversation about 10 years ago when I was visiting Canada. There was a guy that traveled to Canada in order to get an opinion regarding back surgery. He was from San Diego. That’s a pretty far trip to see if he needs back surgery.

I asked him why travel that far for an opinion and he said that he wanted to reduce any bias on the doctor’s part regarding whether he was a candidate. For instance, the doctor in Canada would not be performing the surgery and it was unlikely that the doctor giving the opinion would be able to benefit from recommending surgery, since the patient would have surgery in California.

He avoided going for the opinion in California because the hospital system would profit from the surgery. The surgeon may have an arrangement with the hospital to ensure that the hospital gets a percentage of the money. We know that the hospital will make money during a surgery. Many people stand to profit from a surgery and the patient would do well to get an opinion from someone that doesn’t stand to benefit.

This brings me to my rant for now. 👇

Why don’t patients get a second opinion regarding physical therapy?

1. It’s not a huge expense

Physical therapy, on average will cost the insurance company about $1200 per episode of care. If the patient is paying 20% for the coinsurance, then it will only cost the patient $240/episode. This works out to about $50/week.

That’s relatively inexpensive compared to a large surgery. The question is: why not spend an extra $25 to see if a second therapist agrees with the first? If there is a disagreement in how treatment should be performed, then the cost may not be the chief factor.

This leads us to 👇

2. All therapists do the same thing

Not all PTs are trained the same! Don’t let a non-PT (such as surgeon or family doctor) tell you that it’s all alike.

Not all surgeons have the same reputation and skills. Not all PTs have the same reputation and skills. The only way that you, as a patient, will know about other’s skills and reputation is to ask and try.

If you are absolutely in love with your PT or MD, then so be it. Sing from the rooftops so that the reputation gets built. If you’re not…try someone different.

Sometimes the grass IS greener.

3. Convenience

I get it. A drive around the corner is much easier than a drive for an hour. It makes sense.

If we believe that not all therapists have the same training or passion for treating a specific issue, then we must also believe that these therapists are worth the drive.

Follow this example:

1. Patient A decided to go to a therapist close to home or work (we know that regarding gyms most people won’t drive more than 15 minutes from work/home). The therapy session costs the patient $240 out of pocket and the insurance pays $1000.

Let’s also say that the patient is being seen for low back pain or sciatica, since this is the number one reason to seek PT. The patient is seen in a clinic in which the therapist is there to punch a clock and see as many patients as possible because that’s how 💰 is made.

The patient doesn’t get much better and then returns to the doctor for a series of shots (more money and time). The shots are a 50/50 chance of working.

Half of the patients will then still have pain and now be shuffled to the next step, either pain management or surgical consult.

2. Patient B spent a little time to search for the therapist in a 20 mile area that best treats low back pain or sciatica. The patient makes an extra 20 minute drive. The therapist decides that the patient would ben for from 8 visits of PT over 6 weeks and the patient gets better because the therapist enjoys the job and works well with patients having this diagnosis.

The patient made a little more of an effort up front, but saved 💵 and ⏳ by choosing the right therapist instead of moving further along in the medical system.

Want a second opinion, send me a message.

PTA’s in an outpatient setting continued

“Low back pain syndromes (LBPS) affect more than 65 million Americans…For approximately 16 million people (8%), back pain is persistent or chronic…”

If you have a little bit of free time, you can read about back pain here.

“…a quarter of all referrals for outpatient physical therapy and one-half of all outpatient physical therapy visits are related to patients with LBPS.”

Hey New Grad ✊ are you 👂?

If you want to get really good at something and ensure job stability, then you should learn as much as you can about back pain.

If one out of every two visits per day is related to back pain, we should all be very comfortable with this diagnosis.

In my first job, I’d say that I had 2,500 visits per year with about 95% of those pertaining to the spine.

“Resnik et al reported that patients who spent more than half of their treatment episode of care with a physical therapist assistant reported worse functional outcomes and utilized more visits compared with patients with less physical therapist assistant involvement.”

Again, this is the second post in the series on PTA’s usage in the outpatient setting.  You can find the first post here.

“It is generally assumed that practitioners must possess many years of clinical experience to achieve the best results with patients and that years of experience are associated with better clinical outcomes.”

What?! I don’t agree with this.

Unfortunately, not all experience is good experience. I’ve read Tony Delitto state in an article that one year repeated twenty times is it ideal. I would much rather have a PT with two years of experience and two years worth of learning from mistakes.

“Almost half of the sample had chronic low back pain.”

This is in line with some of the statistics that I’ve heard stating that back pain makes up about 40% of all chronic pain.

“The top 3 diagnoses were pain (34.8%), sprain or strain (25.5%), and herniated disk (19.3).”

About 90-95% of all back pain is “non-specific”, meaning that we can’t attribute it to a specific tissue strain or sprain. Herniated did a are common in the population, but we can’t always attribute a herniated disc (HNP) as the cause of pain.

“On average, patients in the best clinic performance group improved 19.2 OHS points, while patients in the worst clinic performance group improved an average of 16.4 OHS points.”

This is great news!

This means that on average people get better. I used to work in a clinic in which the manager would try to schedule people with back pain as soon as possible. If we know that they will likely improve and they improve on our watch, then they are likely to use post hoc reasoning and attribute improvement to seeing the PT.

I used to joke with patients and say that they simply need to breathe the city air in the basement of the hospital in order to improve. Obviously, it’s a joke, but we have to tell patients that most injuries improve with time.

“Patients in the best clinic performance group utilized, on average, 7.7 (SD = 4.1) visits per treatment episode compared with 7.9 (SD = 4.1) in the middle clinic performance group and 9.3 (SD = 4.9) in the worst clinic performance group.”

This is where it gets interesting. There wasn’t a major difference in outcomes on the scoring improvement, but some clinics needed an extra 2 visits compared to other clinics, on average.

If an average PT sees 5 evaluations per week and it takes an extra 2 visits, then that ONE PT is averaging an extra 20 visits per month (assuming half of the evaluations are back pain). This means that the therapist keeping patients for more visits is making the clinic an extra $2,000 per month from taking longer to discharge patients.

“…clinics that were lower utilizers of physical therapist assistants were 6.6 times more likely to be classified into the high effectiveness group compared with the low effectiveness group, 6.7 times more likely to be classified into the low utilization group compared with the high utilized group, and 12.4 times more likely to be classified into the best performance group compared with the worst performance group.”

This is essentially stating that clinics that use PTAs with a lower frequency in outpatient tend to be better in terms of outcomes and faster to discharge. This mirrors the link to the study from above.

For me this is interesting because I would have never thought to ask the question in the first place. It’s good to see that someone is doing this research to help clinicians in their decisions to 1. Choose between PT and PTA school and 2. Utilize PTAs and how to best utilize PTAs in an outpatient setting.

“Our strongest finding was that clinics that had lower utilization of physical therapist assistants were much more likely to be in the “best” category of each type of group (i.e. highest effectiveness, lowest utilization, and overall performance).”

Link to article